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Orbital billboard lights up

Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 2 inflatable space module has been turned into an orbital billboard - not the kind you can see from Earth, but the kind that can project ads or announcements onto the spacecraft's skin itself, with a picture taken for posterity. And as of now, the billboard is open for business, according to the private space effort's billionaire backer.

A picture of a Bigelow Aerospace employee is

projected onto the side of the orbiting Genesis 2

spacecraft. The projector and the camera taking

the picture of the "billboard" are both mounted

on the tip of a solar panel sticking out from one

end of Genesis 2.

The first picture showing the billboard in action was put up on Bigelow Aerospace's Web site on Thursday, and company founder Robert Bigelow reported that more samples were posted today. The samples range from small company logos to big color photographs of Bigelow Aerospace employees.

"We use ourselves as guinea pigs on a lot of things here," said Bigelow, a Las Vegas real-estate magnate.

The images are uploaded to the spacecraft via Bigelow Aerospace's data communication system, and displayed by a digital projector mounted on the tip of one of Genesis 2's solar arrays. The picture has to be projected while the spacecraft is on Earth's dark side - otherwise, the image would be washed out by the sun's glare. A camera, also mounted on the arrays, takes a picture of the projected image. That's what's transmitted back down to Earth.

The images can be text messages, of course. Bigelow said one of the messages he had sent up reads "Hello Alien Friends" - a nod to his past interest in the search for extraterrestrial life.

"We're just playing around with this, just kind of having fun," Bigelow said. "Don't know who would be interested. We have no idea."

Space ads have been around for years, but Bigelow's little experiment in orbital image projection could make it much easier to get commercial messages into orbit - even though the images are way too dim to be seen from Earth itself.

Bigelow told me that he hasn't yet formulated a detailed plan for selling outer-space advertising. "We're open to any ideas or suggestions from people" on how the projector could be used, he said.

OK, then: Suppose someone called up and offered him $5 to shine a picture of Grandma onto Genesis 2.

"We would do that," Bigelow said.

In fact, Bigelow said he was willing to take requests from regular folks for pictures and messages to display on the spacecraft. "I guess they would call Bigelow Aerospace, and we would try to handle their call," Bigelow said. He told me interested parties should leave their contact information with the company, and someone would call them back to work out the details. (Bigelow Aerospace's phone number in North Las Vegas is 702-688-6600.) 

Bigelow suggested that images or text might be e-mailed, or they could be snail-mailed to the company and digitized in Las Vegas for uploading. "We'd have to probably ask people how long an image should remain" projected on the spacecraft, Bigelow said.

It really sounded as if he was working out his advertising policy right on the spot. "The truth is, we have no idea if anybody cares," he said. "Right now it's just kind of a toy for us."

Genesis 2 has already served as an advertising medium of sorts, through the company's "Fly Your Stuff" program. Scores of people paid $295 to have a photo or business card included in the Genesis payload, in hopes that the item would show up in pictures taken by one of the cameras mounted on the spacecraft's interior.

Bigelow's orbital billboard suggests yet another revenue-generating opportunity - maybe "Flash Your Stuff." And since new imagery can be regularly uploaded to the projector, that opportunity would be available for years to come, as long as Genesis 2 remained in orbit and in contact.

Bigelow doesn't expect the price for flashing your stuff would ever be anything close to $295. "Since it's only going to flash on the spacecraft for a certain period of time, I would imagine that if we do charge for this, it's going to be a lot less," he said.

For now, though, Bigelow sees the orbital billboard as one more small step toward his grander plan to put a habitable module dubbed Sundancer into orbit in 2010 or so.

Several other companies are working with NASA to develop new orbital transportation systems, including SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, t/Space and PlanetSpace, SpaceDev, Spacehab and Constellation Services International. If any of those companies are successful, Sundancer could serve as a destination for tourists riding private-sector spaceships.

And if that comes to pass, Bigelow isn't above giving Sundancer a splash of Vegas-style glitz that would put Genesis 2's feeble shine to shame. Sundancer's flashing lights might well be visible from Earth, he said.

"We're hoping for our Sundancer spacecraft to light up on the outside," he told me. "If you have some blue and green and amber-colored lighting going on, you would have something that really has a lot of blink to it."

Update for 1 p.m. ET Aug. 7: Bigelow published a note on the company's Web site, cautioning that the projection system isn't ready for commercial prime time just yet:

"We don’t exactly have a system set up yet for commercial use of the spacecraft’s billboard capability.

"Commercial use is in the process of evaluation and may take a while. We are using the spacecraft for many other experimental purposes - all of which require transmission bandwidth. At this time, our downlink capabilities are significantly more enhanced for both spacecraft than our uplink capabilities. Uplink non-video messaging only requires a second or two per message for transmission. To send a video up requires a significant increase in bandwidth over what we currently possess if we were to do this in volume. An aggressive commercial program would tax our existing capability. As we have been increasing our number of communication stations, we have also received approval to increase our bandwidth capabilities.

"Again, we are working on it. Thank you for your interest."

The tone of the note makes it sound as if video would be the big draw for commercial applications - which is an intriguing but high-bandwidth idea. It doesn't sound as if Bigelow is closing the door on folks who just want to have Grandma's face shining into space for a short while.