Recent weeks have seen renewed discussion in the technical press concerning the proposals of Russian startup StartRocket to put billboards into Earth orbit. This is hardly a new idea; none of the previous proposals have come close to fruition, and that the commentary has once again been overwhelmingly negative is no great surprise.
There must have been numerous examples of this sort of display in Science Fiction over the years, but the one that springs most immediately to my mind is that of Demon Prince Lens Larque getting the last laugh, when the moon of the planet Methlen is posthumously rearranged by a series of planned explosions into a sculpture of his leering physiognomy, as occurs at the denouément of Jack Vance’s The Face (1979).
The first serious real world proposals to put something permanently visible into orbit were made in the summer of 1986 by the Eiffel Tower company, with the launch of their ‘Eiffel Tower in Space’ competition – an initiative to celebrate the tower’s 100th anniversary in 1989. I remember this quite vividly, as I was a member of the team that put together the entry submitted by the company I was working for at the time. Our entry, La Tour Eiffel de L’Espace, a rather unimaginative copy of the original, but in orbit, was shortlisted, but didn’t win. The best of the bunch (a proposal from Southampton University in the UK, which didn’t win either) was clearly the ‘space chronometer,’ a kind of orbiting set of hands, which, through ingenious design would enable anyone who could see it to tell the time at their location.
By this point however, the competition was in serious trouble from objectors. Astronomers led the way, pointing out that the light pollution from such structures could restrict viewing of the night sky. Earthbound objectors focussed on the unwanted intrusion, pointing out that like as not the first practical implementation, if such things were allowed to go ahead, would be an orbiting Coke bottle.
And this is where the debate remains today – nothing has really changed. I note that StartRocket’s idea puts forward the use of a constellation of microsatellites, each one of which would function as a pixel in a display, thus enabling different messages or designs to be displayed over a period of time (or indeed for the whole array to be switched off). As much as I would be amused to see a laughing Putin image in geostationary orbit over Washington DC, I don’t think StartRocket’s innovations do enough to change the arguments against orbital billboards.
The most positive present day application of this kind of technology is to have orbital mirrors that can be repositioned to divert sunlight to disaster areas (eg; when earthquakes or tsunamis have occurred) at night-time to make the jobs of rescue workers easier. In the future, if the Earth suddenly became more vulnerable to strikes from wandering asteroids or meteors for some reason, they perhaps an orbital warning system for incoming objects might also be a good use for the technology.