Illustration of the SpaceBillboard cubesat in orbit. Image credit: SpaceBillboard

Apr 17, 2015 SpaceBillboard offers space advertising on a smaller scale

Sen—Advertising in space is nothing new. In May of 1996, cosmonauts Yury Onufriyenko and Yury Usachov inflated a 1.2 metre high Pepsi can in space for use in a TV commercial whilst performing maintenance on the Russian Mir space station.

Pizza Hut is the most prominent advertiser to take advantage of space advertising. In July 2000, the US company plastered their nine meter tall logo onto the side of a Russian Proton rocket, which delivered the Zvezda module to be fitted to the International Space Station. One year later the company upped the ante by having vacuum sealed pizzas delivered by rocket to the orbiting crew.

These were some of the more successful attempts at space advertising. At one point, Pizza Hut was considering burning a giant logo into the face of the Moon. International space law issues aside, their plans were shelved once it was realized that the logo would need to be roughly the same size as Texas to be visible from Earth.

In 1993, another company going by the highly original (but fairly accurate) moniker of “Space Marketing Inc.” decided that it would be pretty sweet to launch a one km square mylar billboard into Low Earth Orbit. This would have provided the punters of planet Earth an orbiting eyesore measuring in at roughly the same apparent size and brightness as the Moon itself. 

Luckily some smart people pointed out that such a large surface area would attract some 10,000 collisions from space debris, and the idea quickly died, never to be resurrected again…until now.

Over two decades later, Belgian start-up SpaceBillboard wants to resurrect the idea, albeit on a considerably less intrusive scale-and with more socially responsible goals. SpaceBillboard is focused on fundraising for educational space research.

Using the marvel of CubeSat technology, the 3 founders of SpaceBillboard (all PhD researchers at the University of Leuven, Belgium) plan to sell advertising space on a small billboard mounted onto the side of one of the small satellites.

The diminutive satellite will be launched into a 500 km orbit, where it will circle the Earth 15 times per day, shining its advertising goodness down for the people of Earth, although it will not actually be seen live from space. Wait…what?

Instead, sponsors will have the knowledge that their logo is orbiting Earth, and will have to check photographs of the billboard taken pre-launch for evidence.

Sen spoke to co-founder Tjorven Delabie to get more information on this novel approach to advertising.

“For the sponsors we have right now, this approach is perfect. The value for the sponsors is not in being visible from space, but in the story behind it” says Delabie via email. “By supporting SpaceBillboard, they support innovation, they support young students and they support the many advantages that space research and CubeSats bring to people on Earth. The most important thing is of course the visibility on our website and the story behind the project.”

The payment plan is pretty simple. For €2,500 Euros (about USD $2,600) customers can purchase “squares” measuring 4 mm x 4 mm. The customer's logo will then be fitted to the amount of squares purchased before the aluminium billboard is attached to the side of the CubeSat.

Alternatively, a customized message can be displayed (with other customers’ messages) into special squares designated for text. This option costs €1 Euro per character, and the maximum message length is 140 characters, in typical Twitter fashion.

Already the company has sold several squares to companies such as Microsoft and to Oreo cookies.

According to Delabie, the launch is scheduled to occur in Q4 in 2016, onboard a Dnepr rocket. 

The idea behind the billboard is to help fund space reasearch, and the billboard itself is part of the SIMBA CubeSat whose primary payload is a cavity radiometer designed to measure the radiation that the Earth receives from the Sun continuously.

A couple of times during the mission, the satellite will turn around and will measure the radiation coming form the Sun, all with the idea of better understanding the process of the change in global temperature. "The research is important because it gives more substance to the global warming debate and can help us to determine the action that needs to be taken," the team told Sen in an email.

SpaceBillboard have purchased much of their standard avionics hardware for their CubeSat from a company called ISIS (Innovative Solutions In Space) who are based in the Netherlands. Mission specific hardware such as the ACDS (Attitude Control & Determination System) and the radiation sensors to detect climate change are built by University of Leuven and Royal Meteorological institute of Belgium, respectively.

The radiation sensors make this a dual purpose mission, with the billboard actually playing a secondary role. For this reason a static media was selected, rather than a video billboard which could have beamed images down from space.

According to Delabie, the choice to use an aluminium billboard rather than an electronic one was so as not interfere with the scientific mission. “If we [used an electronic one] it would consume power,” said Delabie, “we would have to change the design of the CubeSat completely, which might endanger the science.”

In addition to the advertising and science, SpaceBillboard are offering opportunities for people to nominate non-profit organizations and charities, to allow them to get extra exposure via being included on the billboard. Those wishing to nominate can do so via the online form.

Given the interest from Microsoft and Oreo already, it seems that there is still some life in the concept of space advertising. And the inclusion of advertising opportunities for good causes and non-profit organisations adds a nice warm fuzzy feeling to this particular project.


SpaceBillboard co-founders Maarten Decat, Tjorven Delabie and Jeroen Vandewalle with a mock-up of their CubeSat. Image credit: SpaceBillboard