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This Russian Start-up Wants to Put Billboards in Space. Astronomers Aren’t Impressed

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In a slick promotional video, Orbital Display imagines a “SimpleCola” logo streaking across a dark sky. (Credit: Orbital Display/Vimeo screengrab)

Imagine this: you’ve just fled from the city to your nearest national park to gaze deeply into the infinite abyss of space and contemplate how your own existence fits into the curtain of the universe. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see bright white letters spelling “KFC” spring across the horizon in a long arc. A few minutes later, it’s gone.

That’s the idea behind Orbital Display, a Russian startup’s effort to bring billboard advertisements to low-earth orbit using a grid of tissue box-sized satellites called “CubeSats.” Orbiting approximately 280 miles above ground, these tiny satellites will unfurl Mylar sails some 30 feet in diameter to catch and reflect sunlight, creating a pixelated matrix. The company, StartRocket, has proposed using this tech to display a knockoff of the Coca-Cola logo and other brand emblems, as well as allow governments to flash urgent notifications during emergencies.

Vladilen Sitnikov, StartRocket’s CEO, describes himself as an advertising guy with a “crazy idea.” He approached SkolTech, a private university in Moscow, to figure out the technical details, contracting a team of engineers to develop a prototype. Their first test launch could happen this summer, with a full execution in 2021. That is, if the company can find the money.

“It’s human nature to advertise everything … Brands [are] a beautiful part of humankind,” Sitnikov says in a video call. He compares his efforts to Elon Musk and SpaceX, who last year launched a Tesla into space, which many considered an advertisement. Sitnikov also compared Orbital Display to banner-towing airplanes.

But the idea, unsurprisingly, attracts negative reactions from astronomers and other dark-sky advocates who fear adding more light pollution to the heavens would cause significant problems. However, those I spoke with unanimously felt the project, or something similar, is inevitable. The wait before LED lights and advertisements fill up the night sky may not be long.

A Swarm of Flashing Satellites

Many satellites are already reflective, bouncing flares of light back to earth that are visible for a few seconds. The brightest are Iridium, a constellation of 66 telecommunication satellites tossed into orbit in the ‘90s. If launched, the Orbital Display will be as bright as these — around -8 magnitude. (For reference, the full moon is about -13 and the sun is about -27.)

Like most CubeSats, the billboard will have planned obsolescence and won’t last more than a year, the company says. The Orbital Display will only be viewable in evening and morning twilight, when the cubes catch sunlight while the observer is in darkness, according to Patrick Seitzer, an astronomy professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“You’ll never see them at midnight, for example,” he says in an email. “Depending on the orbit chosen, they might be visible for a few days, and then not visible for a week or more.”

“Launching art projects like this with no commercial, scientific, or national security value seems unwise,” adds Seitzer, who has been studying space debris since 2000. “Space is getting increasingly crowded. There are over 20,000 objects with orbits in the official public catalog maintained by the U.S. Air Force. Less than 10 percent of those objects are active satellites — the rest are dead satellites, old rocket bodies and parts of spacecraft.”

Astronomer John Barentine agrees this isn’t a bright idea — or actually, bright is the problem. Barentine serves as both director of conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona, and a member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference and Space Debris. He says these space billboards could qualify as both light pollution and space debris and possibly even disrupt radio signals.

“It’s a threat to the ability to do astronomical research from the ground,” he says, noting that SpaceX’s plans to add at least another 7,500 CubeSats into low-earth orbit will also factor into the problem. “Every one of those moving blips of light in the night sky is something that can interfere with our ability to collect photons from astronomical sources.”

But Sitnikov insists his display’s orbit is so short it’s negligible for observing. “It’s just six minutes,” he says. “You can do peeing or making your coffee. So it’s a break for you, it’s like we [are] help[ing] them.”

Others see this as adding to the growing health problems caused by light pollution. Harun Mehmedinović, a cinematographer specializing in night sky exposures, emphasizes the effect light pollution has on human mental health, but also the impact it has on plants and animals.

“We have a heritage and I think a long-standing relationship with the pristine night sky, which I think is important to us as people,” he says, arguing that without the night sky, humans wouldn’t have developed science or religion. “The two big dominant forces wouldn’t exist without stargazing — they ultimately are rooted in celestial observation.”

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Pixels of light spell out “Hello,” in a promotional video demonstrating Orbital Display’s concept for space advertising. (Credit: Orbital Display/Vimeo screengrab)

Fake Suns From Past To Present

Space mirrors actually aren’t so original. A province in China recently proposed installing an artificial moon as a replacement for streetlights, although the project never materialized. A large disco ball called Humanity Star, launched by Rocket Lab a year ago for no other purpose than to shine brightly as it flew by, angered some who labeled it environmental vandalism. It eventually burnt out in the atmosphere.

In 1923, the German physicist Hermann Oberth proposed putting a 100-meter wide mirror into space to ricochet concentrated sunlight down on the globe. The so-called “sun gun” was later adopted by the Third Reich, but never made it off the drawing board.

Russian engineers revisited the idea in 1993 (although as a method of focusing light into polar regions, not as a weapon) with Znamya, a disk of aluminum-coated plastic film 65 feet in diameter. The first successfully splashed sunlight down to astronomers in the Alps, but the second experiment was a dismal failure.

That raises the question if this tech is even feasible or if it’s just a PR stunt. “There are a number of technical issues regarding keeping the CubeSats in formation,” Seitzer says. “Active propulsion will be necessary. The large Mylar sails will be effective as drag sails, and thus the CubeSats will decay from orbit in a short time. Thus one has to constantly replenish the constellation.”

But, the company says they’ve solved these technical problems. Furthermore, as StartRocket emphasizes in their PR material, there are currently no laws against their ambitions. The Federal Communications Commission recently proposed updates to mitigating orbital debris, but they aren’t law yet, and don’t address advertising. In other words, looking up and seeing an Orbital Display may only be a matter of time, Barentine says.

“There’s not a lot that can be done other than heaping scorn upon the companies that might advertise with the satellite owners,” he says, but as for him and the International Dark-Sky Association, “We are going to continue to be advocates for a night sky that is free of this kind of activity and remains as accessible to all humanity as possible.”

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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