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Upon first hearing that someone wants to launch a billboard into orbit around Earth, most people would probably shake their heads and despair over how humanity had lost its way.
Because really, if and when most of us manage to get into space, we don’t want our first vision of the galaxy’s wonders to be a sign telling us how far to the closest McDonald’s.
The team of researchers at a Belgium university plotting the world’s first space billboard understand that feeling, and have encountered such reactions when explaining their concept. But the folks at Space Billboard want people to know that in reality, the program is a bit of a gimmick to raise money to fund additional research on a new breed of small satellites.
There is nothing to fear. This is all in the name of science.
“We wanted to do cool things with this new satellite technology and give it more visibility through the media,” said Tjorven Delabie, cofounder of SpaceBillboard and a Ph.D. student at the school of engineering at KU Leuven University of Belgium.
In this case, the satellite technology is something called “cubesats.” These are basically small, modular satellites about 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm that can fit into the palm of your hand. NASA and the European Space Agency have embraced these in a big way. The size and relatively low cost of cubesats are enabling everyone from high school students to a new breed of entrepreneurs to design and launch space-related projects.
Delabie, and his Ph.D. colleagues, Jeroen Vandewalle and Maarten Decat, had already received funding to launch their own cubesat as part of a European Space Agency launch that will send 50 of them at once in 2016. Their cubesat uses three modules, making it 30 cm high, or about the size of a milk carton. It will help conduct atmospheric research that they hope will provide more information about global warming.
As they got to working on the project, they came up with the idea of the space billboard to raise money for future research. The billboard will fit on one side of the cubesat, and is divided into 400 squares that are each about .5 centimeter long. So, pretty darn tiny.
“Obviously, these will not be visible on Earth,” Delabie said. “But it will be physically up there.”
The group will place a copy of the billboard online, as well as a tracking service to let people follow the cubesat as it orbits. The team has been pitching the idea to various businesses, hoping they will want to be associated with a fun, innovative concept. But individuals can also buy squares and write short text messages that would appear on them.
The deadline for buying space on the billboard is May 15. So far, Delabie said they’ve sold about 7 percent of the squares, which cost about $2,800 each. Which means they’re a long way from their goal of raising $1.2 million. The sponsors who have bought squares so far include Microsoft, which bought four.
Delabie said the money will be used to let more graduate students work on the cubesat project, as well as buying more cubesats and launching them.
“This is an exciting time for space research and cubesats open a lot of new business possibilities,” he said. “But people should know we’re not in this as a corporation that’s trying to make profits. We just want to be able to do more research.”
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