Advertising in outer space: the beginnings of commercial drifts?

Are we at the origin of a fundamental turning point in terms of advertising in outer space? This is what several start-ups and private companies seemed to announce last year. Advertising is everywhere: on posters (paper or digital), in magazines, on TV, on the Internet, in our smartphones, and even soon in our connected and autonomous cars. Is the next step the sky? Will we one day see giant billboards floating in the clouds… even in outer space? This scenario seems very “science fiction”, reminiscent of works like Blade Runner or Back to the Future, but it is in fact quite realistic.

Originally, several treaties and conventions governed outer space and its appropriation. The principle being the non-appropriation and the peaceful use of the extra-atmospheric environment, according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Indeed, the Outer Space Treaty envisages that all the nations can freely explore outer space, that no celestial body can be claimed by any State, that no weapon of mass destruction is authorised in outer space, and that States (as well as citizens or businesses under their authority) must not cause destruction or contamination by their activities in outer space, or must at least clean up after their passage.

The different regulations concerning outer space do not rule out the possibility that space is the place of commercial advertisements, but nevertheless certain countries have definitively banned the use of advertising in space. This is particularly the case in the United States of America. It all started in 1993, after a bill by Ed Markey, a member of the U.S. Congress, who argued that all forms of advertising in outer space should be banned. This statement follows the Space Billboard project initiated by the American company Space Marketing which planned to launch a luminous orbital advertising panel of one kilometre square. Several criticisms are added to this statement and in particular coming from astronomers who put their finger on the real problem of advertising in outer space. Indeed, several harmful consequences can result from these space advertising campaigns such as light pollution, pollution of space debris or the impossibility of clearly observing the heavens. Indeed, according to University of Mississippi Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, the logic of this law consisted in considering that large advertisements, such that the space marketing panel, could increase light pollution, create a brighter night sky (which would limit astronomical observations of outer space), interfere with navigation satellites using star finders and sensors solar panels to calibrate their measurements and, more generally, would be visual nuisances for the general public. U.S. law quickly passed on a law on advertising in outer space. Thus, 51 U.S. Code § 50911 entitled “Space advertising”, relating to space advertising, regulates that no license will be issued and no launch will be authorised for activities involving annoying space advertising. This prohibition does not apply to other forms of advertising, such as the display of logos. Thus, American law draws a clear distinction between annoying advertising which is prohibited and non-annoying advertising which is authorised.

Since the 1990s, several private companies have tried repeatedly to take their advertising campaign to the orbital level. This was particularly the case for PepsiCo, which offered nearly five million American dollars to Russia for a cosmonaut to float a replica of the company’s soda can outside the Soviet Mir space station. In 2000, Pizza Hut paid nearly one million American dollars to have its logo painted on a rocket. Most recently, in 2018, the famous SpaceX company led by the prominent Elon Musk, also founder of Tesla, launched a Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload for the test flight of the Falcon Heavy. In 2019, the company Rocket Lab sent a luminous object called “Humanity Star” into orbit.

Several projects, however, never came to fruition, as was the case for the French project “Ring of Light” intended to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, and which would have rivalled the Moon for pure luminosity. The project was to have an inflatable ring with a circumference of twenty-four kilometers and this ring would have been attached at various points by reflective Mylar balloons. If the project had been carried out, the organisers would have launched the ring over a height of more than eight hundred kilometers. Fortunately, the project has been abandoned and will not ruin our vision of the Moon. In 2019, a Russian start-up, StartRocket, has tackled the question of advertising in outer space by proposing the orbit of a giant advertising billboard.

Indeed, StartRocket, a Russian start-up, has planned to create the world’s first orbital advertising panel, visible from the blue planet. The project, called Orbital Display, wants to connect a set of nano-satellites (called CubeSats) so as to create a giant advertising panel of fifty kilometers square, placed in outer space at an altitude of four hundred to five hundred kilometers above the sea level. At the origin of the project: a young Russian entrepreneur, Vlad Sitnikov, who recognises that his project is “a crazy idea” but who maintains that “entertainment and advertising are now at the heart of the concerns of our society”. The company plans to launch its CubeSats by 2020, and plans to broadcast its first posters by 2021. Once in outer space, these reflective satellites will be able to broadcast three to four messages or images per day, visible by the entire population of the globe, as soon as the sunlight is reflected on it (five to six minutes per day maximum).

Several astronomers and scientists reacted with fear to the different projects which follow one after the other and for good reason. The same criticisms made today have prompted the U.S. government to ban “annoying” advertising in outer space. Indeed, the satellites could create a real disorder in outer space, by colliding with other machines. John Crassidis says the increase in the number of satellites should clearly “increase the risk of collision”. Because the Earth orbit, where StartRocket would like to send its satellites, currently houses the International Space Station (ISS) as well as hundreds and hundreds of other satellites in service. In addition, John Crassidis fears that these advertising devices “will eventually become space debris”, polluting outer space a little more, and disrupting the operations of scientists from NASA and ESA. Finally, astronomers, but also environmental specialists, fear light pollution which would be generated by such space campaigns and which would disturb nocturnal animals, while making it impossible to observe a completely “virgin” sky.

This article was written by Arthur CATHERINE (Paris-Saclay).