Space billboards could cost $65 million and turn a profit • TechCrunch

Space advertising has been on the minds of every marketer on the planet since the days of Apollo, yet no one has made it happen. A new study shows that a billboard-like constellation of about 50 satellites, costing a total of $65 million, could shine ads to every corner of the Earth for months — and potentially make money while doing it.

Of course, just because they could does not mean that must. But let’s focus on the former for now.

The study, by Russian researchers at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, makes a pretty compelling case that is bolstered by the recent controversy surrounding SpaceX’s highly visible Starlink satellites.

The paper’s proposal involves sending a constellation of about 50 satellites in a Cubesat 12U volume — think the size of a full paper grocery bag. The satellites would enter a sun-synchronous orbit, meaning they would always be in direct sunlight as they passed around Earth.

Once in orbit, they would deploy large, parabolic reflectors that would bounce sunlight toward Earth. These could be tilted to better show sunlight on a target area they pass by and from the ground would appear to be a group of stars moving in sync over a period of perhaps three to five minutes. (To be clear, the image at the top is just indicative – it would be much dimmer in reality.)

The 50 satellites could rearrange themselves into patterns ranging from letters to simple graphics — not fast, but fast enough that the pattern could evolve over their visible time or switch advertisers between target cities. They would be weaned after 1-3 months depending on various factors. I’ve asked the researchers for clarification on shelf life, display duration, and a few other details, and I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Diagram of a satellite’s reflective footprint and examples (Olympics logo and Eiffel Tower) of possible displays.

The physical possibility of doing this does not seem at all surprising considering how visible existing satellites can be in these orbits and the precision with which they can already be arranged. So, with this established, a large part of the work is devoted to an economic analysis. After all, we probably could have launched a Nike logo into space in the 90s (and there were attempts) if people would have rallied around it… but why would they? The issue must make financial sense.

The cost of the mission is estimated at $65 million, most of which goes to the construction of the 50 satellites ($48.7 million), then testing, support and engineering ($11.5 million), and of course launch ($4, 8 million dollars). This seems reasonable enough in theory.

But it gets a little fuzzy on income estimates. A complex equation to determine which cities, regions and times of the year would make more money suggests that winter provides the highest ROI. You might think: but people stay inside during the winter. Yes, but not in the tropics and much of south and southeast Asia, where winter brings longer nights but nothing like bad weather in northern latitudes. And it just so happens some of the most populous cities in the world are there.

Images showing possible satellite configurations in Olympic rings and Eiffel Tower shapes.

Their most optimistic estimate puts the net income at about $111 million, over three months and 24 shows — which works out to about $4.6 million per ad. Super Bowl ads cost more than that and are only 30 seconds long — though of course they’re in 4K and color with sound. But the money and appetite for gimmicky advertising is certainly there.

The more important question is does anyone want to see ads in the sky? Almost certainly not. While the novelty of a satellite display can be awe-inspiring for a while, this display of the Pepsi logo — or more likely, or something — can quickly turn awe into disgust. “Is this? A sweet ad?” if you want.

It would be a huge gamble of fame: the first company to place its advertisements among the stars. Sure, we had sponsored content and logos on the International Space Station, but this is different. When you see the ISS pass overhead, it doesn’t flash “SNICKERS SATISFIES” in Morse code at you.

The study by Skoltech and MIPT is probably something that has been speculated about internally at many companies that have considered the possibility for years. However, the idea that the whole business can actually make money is a relatively new development. Even five years ago, the numbers might not have worked. And remember that this is only one view of the problem – others may come to different conclusions.

Will we soon see advertisements in the stars? Unlikely, but anything profitable tends to happen sooner or later in this crazy, crazy world of ours, so don’t be surprised if you hear of attempts being made. Maybe we’ll outlaw it – but who has jurisdiction? Or maybe the launch companies will downsize – but do they want to put themselves in that position? It’s a weird possibility and very science fiction, but so is a lot of what’s going on these days.

The full text is available to read here.

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