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.
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 (opens in new tab)that such a project could test recent progress on banning anti-satellite missile testing.
Efforts to ban testing of ASATs face their strongest challenge yet. pic.twitter.com/vM1pFVCqJuOctober 5, 2022
It's not the first time reflecting light from orbit has been considered. A Russian startup previously (opens in new tab)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 (opens in new tab) 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.