Prime ad space. In space. MIT students would put slogans on satellite to raise funds

By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff  |  November 3, 2006

Now on sale: Ads in space.

In a novel bid to raise money to send a research satellite into space, a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering companies and individuals a chance to put their advertisements into orbit around the Earth.

This week, MIT’s Mars Gravity Biosatellite Program launched a website, YourNameIntoSpace.org , and created a group on Facebook.com — “I’m Sending My Name into Space and You Should Too!” — that will sell space on the satellite where cosmic marketers can place their logos, slogans, photos, and other images.

The group needs about $30 million by 2010 to help finance the YNIS project, which is researching how mammals are affected by long-term exposure to Mars-like gravity.

To raise that kind of cash, the students decided, the sky is no longer the limit.

“We needed more funding and realized that we’re sending up this satellite into orbit with all this space on board used for nothing — so why not sell it to people who want to express a message?” said Thaddeus R.F. Fulford-Jones , a 24-year-old doctoral candidate at MIT who is working on the project. “It allows them to become part of the mission.”

To date, there have been few successful marketing efforts involving spaceflight, most memorably in 2000 when Pizza Hut placed a 30-foot logo on the side of a Russian spacecraft and then delivered vacuum-sealed pizza to the International Space Station a year later.

MIT’s project would be the first attempt to plaster an entire spacecraft with logos and messages. The fund-raiser is loosely modeled after The Million Dollar Homepage, a website developed last year by a 21-year-old student from England who successfully raised $1 million to pay for his education by selling a pixel’s worth of space for $1 on his website.

The effort gained worldwide media attention and some advertisers who bought space on the webpage reported significant increases in Internet traffic.

On the YNIS spacecraft, there are 121,866 square centimeters for sale inside and outside the satellite, which is about as tall as a washing machine and as long as a Ford Focus.

Prices range from $35 to $250 per square centimeter. There’s no limit on the size of the advertisement, but prices are expected to rise as demand increases. Sponsors will be listed on the website until 2011. In an added bonus, the purchase is tax deductible as a donation to support the construction of the spacecraft.

And like any real estate market, the YNIS spacecraft has better neighborhoods than others. The cheapest property is the “introductory” zone at edges of the satellite’s solar panels (It burns up in space, unfortunately.) while the more expensive “bronze” and “silver” zones on the exterior are photographed in orbit by cameras mounted on the solar panels. Anything smaller than one square centimeter would be too small to be seen by the cameras.

For the ultimate keepsake, there’s the “gold zone” in the interior of the capsule. Within five weeks of a successful landing in the Australian desert, donors will receive their piece of the spacecraft interior.

“It’s kind of like selling pieces of the Berlin Wall,” said Jamie Tedford , senior vice president of marketing and media innovation at Arnold Worldwide, a Boston advertising firm. “It’s a new media, in a way, and could be a good public branding opportunity.”

The students are hoping to raise at least $500,000 through ad sales by next year to complete the next round of design work . To date, they have received about $1.5 million from the for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, corporations, and universities sponsoring the project, including MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The mission will study the physiological effects, such as bone density and muscle mass loss, after a colony of mice on board the orbit spend about five weeks in an altered level of gravity.

The research will provide data on how mammals are affected by long-term exposure to lower gravity, a critical first step toward human missions to other planets, according to Rosamund Combs-Bachman, YNIS assistant program coordinator.

Mark Jones , president of Mead Web Design and Computing in Danvers, bought a square centimeter for $150 in the silver zone.

He is putting up the company’s logo on that piece and is already considering buying more space on the satellite.

“I don’t advertise much, and I thought this was pretty different,” Jones said. “The space project really caught my eye, and I think it will get a lot of attention.”

So far, Microsoft Research, a division of Microsoft Corp., which has been funding the project for several years, has the biggest property at 196 square centimeters — about the size of a CD case. YNIS hopes for even bigger sponsors, though the students caution there’s some risk with any space travel.

“We can’t guarantee everyone’s name will make it up there. Things happen in space. Rockets blow up, satellites go into the wrong orbit,” Fulford-Jones said. “But obviously, we’re doing our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company