Will there be no end to people trying to muck up the night sky? Around this time last year it was a disco ball sent into low-Earth orbit. Now a Russian startup has had the colossally dense idea of sticking beaming billboards up there, to shine advertising back down to Earth.
Putting aside the fact that advertising is already ubiquitous, the notion of adding a significant source of light pollution to the night sky has astronomers – professional and amateur alike – fuming.
The startup is called StartRocket, and it hopes to use an array of tiny cubesats to create a programmable display in the night sky.
Orbiting at a low-Earth altitude of 400-500 kilometres (248-310 miles), according to the startup’s website, these satellites would each bear a collapsible sail that is capable of reflecting the light of the Sun to form a single pixel.
Because it would be dependent on the Sun, it would only be able to display at dawn and dusk.
All up, the “billboard” would have an area of 50 square kilometres (19 square miles). This Orbital Display, as it is being called, could then be programmed to display logos to people around the globe, for 6-minute intervals, around 3 or 4 times a day – theoretically, at least.
“We are ruled by brands and events,” project leader Vlad Sitnikov told Futurism.
“The Super Bowl, Coca Cola, Brexit, the Olympics, Mercedes, FIFA, Supreme and the Mexican wall. The economy is the blood system of society. Entertainment and advertising are at its heart.
“We will live in space, and humankind will start delivering its culture to space. The more professional and experienced pioneers will make it better for everyone.”
But, as the response indicates, “better” is a matter of opinion, mainly because of the light pollution the Orbital Display would generate.
“It’s a threat to the ability to do astronomical research from the ground,” astronomer John Barentine of the International Dark Sky Association told Astronomy.com. “Every one of those moving blips of light in the night sky is something that can interfere with our ability to collect photons from astronomical sources.”
In the short term, the system would increase the number of satellites in space, which in turn increases the risk of collision.
But it is worth noting that, while space junk is a pretty big problem, the Orbital Display wouldn’t add to it long-term. At the chosen altitude, the satellites’ orbit would decay in a year or so, hopefully burning up harmlessly on reentry as they returned to Earth.
But the light pollution issue isn’t a small one. And we’re not sure Sitnokov’s suggestion to “do peeing or making your coffee” while the display is on is the most helpful one, given how time-sensitive astronomical observations can be.
For no reason at all, here’s what it looks like when a satellite goes through Hubble’s field of view whilst you are trying to image something in the distant solar system. pic.twitter.com/eLWR1ncdqx
— Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker) January 25, 2018
The company isn’t the only one trying to send wacky things into low-Earth orbit. Take China’s weird artificial Moon to serve as a replacement for streetlights, one of the strangest energy-saving measures we think we’ve ever heard.
Or a Japanese proposal to launch satellites that will rain down artificial meteor showers, so you don’t have to sit around waiting for a real one.
Nevertheless, none have been solidified at this stage – not these other proposals, nor the Orbital Display.
The system has yet to be tested (the startup has plans to do so as early as this year), has yet to be funded, and has yet to be approved according to local and international laws and regulations.
The team says that they have managed to overcome the technical challenges associated with flying an array of satellites in formation, and the drag introduced by the sails; however, that remains to be seen.
As to whether it can meet space regulations – well, those are significantly outdated, so there’s a good chance that it could.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the company is vastly exaggerating its technical prowess.