Year ahead: Will space advertising take off in 2022?

Plans to advertise from space have been around for decades, but the latest proposals have met fierce criticism.

A key objection to space advertising proposals is that they will contribute to light pollution from space, a problem that is growing even without ads in orbit [File: Scott Kelly/NASA via AP]

Advertising in outer space might seem like a vulgar idea, but it’s one with a long history. It’s also getting more popular because the cost of going to space is falling. But the side effects, such as light pollution and space debris, might not be worth it.

In August, the Canadian company Geometric Energy Corporation (GEC) announced that it wanted to launch a small satellite with a billboard on it on a SpaceX rocket. The story immediately went viral, and SpaceX and GEC received a barrage of criticism.

In 2019, Russian entrepreneur Vlad Sitnikov got caught up in a similar controversy. “I’m an ad guy”, Sitnikov told Al Jazeera. “So I thought it would be cool to see a new type of media in the sky.”

Sitnikov had previously founded his own advertisement agency, and now wanted to do something with space advertising. So he turned to friends in the space industry, and eventually the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a private university located in Moscow. They came up with the idea to send a group of small satellites up, all with screens on them, which together could act as a billboard visible from earth on which advertisements could be shown.

He launched concept images, which showed a Coca Cola advertisement appearing in the sky. That is when criticism started pouring in, saying the proposal was vulgar, but also might contribute to issues like light pollution.

“These images were reposted everywhere”, he said. “A big wave of hate crushed me. I decided to halt the project, because people around the world started hating me.”  His start-up, StartRocket, has been in limbo ever since.

A big wave of hate crushed me

Vlad Sitnikov, founder, StartRocket

What GEC and Sitnikov proposed is just the latest example of space advertising, a concept whose history goes back decades. During the ’90s, the Russian space programme, for example, had a range of collaborations with brands. In 1996, they were paid $5m for floating a Pepsi can outside the space station Mir, and Pizza Hut paid them $1m in 2000 to print their logo on one of their rockets.

Not in my low earth orbit

With space becoming more accessible, and less costly to access, proposals for using space for advertising or entertainment purposes have been increasing. Besides the GEC and StartRocket projects, Japanese start-up ALE wants to use satellites that drop small balls to create artificial shooting stars on demand – a proposition that raised close to $50m in venture funding. In 2019, start-up RocketLab also sent up a disco ball-like satellite, called Humanity Star, as a promotional stunt.

“You can become the next media magnate”, Sitnikov said. “When we launched our idea, we immediately had clients lined up who wanted to pay. People want to pay for space advertising.”

People want to pay for space advertising

Vlad Sitnikov, founder, StartRocket

One key objection to these proposals is that they will contribute to light pollution from space, a problem that is growing even without ads in orbit.

“Until recently most of our work had been on ground-based light pollution”, said Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory, and chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris. “The issue of light pollution from space is new territory for us, and it only started in 2019 with the launch of the SpaceX Starlink satellites,” he told Al Jazeera.

Large, so-called “constellations” of small, low-flying satellites have boomed in recent years. For example, SpaceX Starlink wants to launch tens of thousands of satellites to offer internet connections all over the world.

The issue of light pollution from space is new territory for us

Jeffrey Hall, Director, Lowell Observatory

For astronomers, however, to observe space they need relatively dark skies. Yet bright outdoor lights on land, or satellites that emit or reflect light, like the Starlink constellation, can ruin what they do. And Hall fears space billboards might make the problem worse.

“Satellites leave very bright streaks in images”, he said. “The streaks can saturate pixels in the image, and completely ruin it.”

According to Sitnikov, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. In his proposal, a billboard would only be visible six minutes at a time.

But even that would be problematic, said Hall. “Six minutes isn’t going to be the end of ground-based astronomy. But it’s the start of something that could become rampant. It’s also one more thing in the sky that impacts observation. It’s the aggregate effect that really has the potential to negatively affect the night sky.”

Opponents of space advertising say it might even contribute to space debris. The more objects we launch into orbit, the more likely it becomes that they crash into each other and cause a chain reaction that will populate low earth orbit with pieces of debris, making going to space much harder or perhaps even impossible.

“Things are moving so fast it makes sense to slow down until we understand the impacts of what we’re doing”, said Hall.

Space law

It is possible that space law will prevent satellite billboards. Space is subject to the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, which sees space as a global commons.

“There is nothing specific in the treaty about space advertising”, said professor emerita Joanne Gabrynowicz, director of the International Institute of Space Law. “But article 9 does require signatories to exercise ‘due regard’ of other signatories’ interests and to avoid ‘harmful interference’ to other nations’ space activities,” she told Al Jazeera.

Satellite billboards that impede astronomers from observing space could be subject to this. On top of that, the US passed a national law during the 1990s that prohibits space advertising that might be deemed “obtrusive.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a batch of approximately 60 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network lifts off from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida in April this year [File: John Raoux/AP]

Of course, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation was reviewed and approved by US authorities, even though it impacts astronomy. International law also depends on how treaties are applied at the national level. The Russian state would, for example, need to decide whether it sees a Russian space advertising startup as being in line with the Outer Space Treaty. Yet there is a legal argument for blocking space advertising if it would cause too much light pollution.

All of that leaves Sitnikov unphased. His idea might have lay dormant for a while, but he’s now looking to get back into space. He recently merged StartRocket’s activities with those of another Russian startup. This time they don’t want to launch a billboard, but small satellites that can send morse messages to earth by laser.

“You could use the camera of your phone to read the information from the lasers”, said Sitnikov. “Independent media in countries like Iran, Russia or North Korea could use it.”

Whether this idea gets off the ground remains to be seen. What does seem likely is that as the cost of going to space continues to decrease, plans for space advertising are bound to increase.

Source: Al Jazeera