Cubesat formations could beam ads to Earth, some researchers think

One day, Russia could beam such adverts to its residents from space.
One day, Russia could beam such advertising messages to its residents from space. (Image credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

A Russian study claims that flying a formation of cubesats to create adverts in the night sky could be economically viable, with each solar sail-carrying satellite projecting a pixel of a message to cities below.

The study, by a team of researchers from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, looked at the use of 344 square-foot (32 square meters) solar sails that would be attached to the cubesats and angled to reflect sunlight, each forming a pixel in the sky. Such large reflectors have never been deployed on cubesats before, but the study found the solution feasible, concluding that a fleet of 50 such satellites would be ideal for such advertising campaigns. When passing overhead above a target city at altitudes of between 300 to 600 miles (500 to 1,000 kilometers), the formation would light up, displaying bright messages to the residents below.

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An emailed press statement accompanying the release states that the study considered factors including "satellite fuel consumption, target city population, local advertising costs, and many more," and arrives at a "tentative $65 million estimate for the entire mission cost and showing that such a mission could indeed be feasible."

The study was greeted less than enthusiastically outside of Russia, with space journalist Jeff Foust joking that such a project could test recent progress on banning anti-satellite missile testing.

 Arstechnica described the notion as "a terrible idea for a variety of reasons, from the proliferation of space debris to concerns about satellite light pollution."

It's not the first time reflecting light from orbit has been considered. A Russian startup previously announced plans for swarms of light-reflecting satellites for generating advertising revenue, while a plan from a group in Chengdu, China, in 2018 revealed a scheme to put an "artificial moon" in the sky to provide additional lighting for the city.

The authors of the new paper state that the formation would necessarily operate near the terminator line which divides night from day on Earth, meaning they would only be visible during periods close to sunrise or sunset. 

Another matter entirely, however, is if anyone actually wants to see marketing messages punctuate the night sky.

The study was published online in the journal Aerospace.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.