Space Billboards Could Cost $65 Million and Still Turn a Profit

A new study suggests that a billboard-like constellation of about 50 satellites, costing $65 million all in, could shine ads to every corner of the Earth for months — and potentially make money while doing so. TechCrunch reports: The study, from Russian researchers at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), presents a fairly compelling case that is bolstered by the recent controversy around SpaceX’s highly visible Starlink satellites. The paper’s proposal involves sending up a constellation of about 50 satellites at a 12U CubeSat volume — think about the size of a full paper grocery bag. The satellites would enter a sun-synchronous orbit, meaning they’ll always be in direct sunlight as they pass around the Earth. Once in orbit, they would deploy large, parabolic reflectors that would bounce sunlight down toward the Earth. These could be tilted to best present the sunlight to a target area they are passing over, and from the ground would appear to be a group of stars moving in synchrony for a period of perhaps three to five minutes. (To be clear, the image at top is just for illustration — it would be much dimmer in reality.)

The 50 satellites could rearrange themselves in patterns, from letters to simple graphics — not fast, but fast enough that the shape could evolve over their visible time, or change advertisers between target cities. They would deorbit after 1-3 months, depending on several factors. I’ve asked the researchers for clarification on the lifetime, display length and a few other details and will update this post if I hear back. The physical possibility of doing this doesn’t seem outlandish at all considering how visible existing satellites can be in these orbits, and the precision with which they can be arranged already. So with that established, a good deal of the paper is dedicated to an economic analysis. After all, we probably could have launched a Nike logo to space in the ’90s (and there were attempts) if the world came together on it… but why would they? The thing has to make financial sense.

The cost of the mission is estimated at $65 million, most of which goes to manufacturing the 50 satellites ($48.7 million), then to testing, support and engineering ($11.5 million), and of course launch ($4.8 million). That seems reasonable enough in theory. But it gets a little fuzzy in the income estimates. A complicated equation for determining which cities, in which regions and at what times of the year would make more money suggests that winter provides the greatest 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 the inclement weather of northern latitudes. And it happens some of the most densely populated cities in the world are there. Their most optimistic estimate puts net income at around $111 million, over three months and 24 displays — that works out to around $4.6 million per ad. Super Bowl ads cost more than that, and only last 30 seconds — though of course they’re in 4K and full color with sound. But the money and appetite for stunt advertising is definitely there.

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