What are space billboards? Imagine you are gazing deeply into the infinite abyss of space and thinking about how your existence fits into the universe. Then, out of nowhere, you see bright white letters spelling “Coca Cola” or “KFC” spring across the horizon, gone within a few minutes.
That’s the idea behind space billboards, also known as orbital displays.
The idea of space advertising is not a new concept, but now several businesses, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are planning on executing it.
Even though it may look like a sci-fi movie coming to reality, the idea of space advertising or even satellites whose sole purpose is to be seen from the night sky has attracted a lot of criticism. Several people and astronomers have linked it with the night sky’s vandalism.
What’s The News?
This month, Business Insider (1) reported that Elon Musk plans to send an advertising billboard into space. It will include a tiny CubeSat-sized satellite with a pixelated screen on one end. They are expected to launch it in early 2022, and followers will see the screen from Earth thanks to an attached selfie stick. Wait, What? A selfie stick in space? Yes, it sounds hilarious, but we promise it gets more serious.
The company is using a CubeSat measuring 10 centimeters and will launch it via its Falcon 9 rocket.
GEC, Geometric Energy Corporation, a Canadian startup, will reportedly build the satellite. It will use a built-in selfie stick to record the billboard once it is in the space and live stream the ad on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
Wait, there is more. Reportedly, you and I can also buy ad space on the billboard using cryptocurrency tokens like Ethereum or Dogecoin.
“What we are attempting to accomplish is something that can democratize access to space and allow for decentralized participation. Let’s hope people don’t waste their money on something insulting, inappropriate, or offensive,” said Samuel Reid, Co-founder and SEO of GEC to Insider. Yes, Sure.
Read Also: Elon Musk’s Starlink India Launch Hype
How Did We Get Here?
While the idea of space advertising goes way back to the 1940s (2) (as far we went during our research, we are not so sure if the concept emerged even before), it came into the mainstream for multiple businesses in the early 1990s, when space technology was on the rise after the space race and the fall of the Soviet Union.
But why is there a peak in interest for space billboards? Well, there is a big advantage of space advertising compared to other Earth-bound methods – its sheer scale of reach. Imagine billions of people residing in multiple nations watching your ad orbiting Earth.
So yes, space ads can offer valuable marketing capabilities. Some may argue that the relatively high cost can prohibit it from becoming common. But think about how many companies are willing to spend millions of dollars on Super Bowl commercials and popular TV shows like Friends (5). Undoubtedly, the sheer benefit that the space ad would offer is very enticing for companies.
Now, before we move forward, there are two types of space advertising:
- Obtrusive Space Advertising: It is a term used for space ads that people can recognize without using binoculars or telescopes.
- Non-obtrusive Space Advertising: It can be, for instance, company logos on satellites, space suits, and rockets.
Space exploration authorities and regulators in the past have been reluctant to cater to advertisers. NASA also has restrictive policies on its employees endorsing any products. NASA astronauts, for instance, need to refer to M&M as “candy-coated” chocolates (6, 7).
Moreover, the high coats of orbital spaceflight have previously discouraged attempts on space ads in the past. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Failed Attempts at Launching Marketing Ploy into Space
While the sheer number of space advertising is not that significant, multiple companies and businesses worldwide had made failed attempts in the past to launch different space marketing plans and projects.
In 1989, France initiated a project, “Ring of Light,” to mark a tribute to the 100th anniversary of its Eiffel Tower. The project involved launching a 100 reflectors ring linked together, reflecting the sun’s light to be observable for about 10 minutes out of every 90-minute orbital time. However, they called off the project because of concerns about space-related scientific research interference and widespread criticism (8, 9).
Space Marketing Inc. proposed launching an ad billboard in space in 1993. However, House of Representatives members blocked it by passing legislation to prevent launch licensing to put ads in space (10, 11).
Another famous attempt and a recent one was in 2019 by PepsiCo Inc. Russian branch who had partnered with StartRocket, a Russian startup, to launch an orbital billboard. They had even conducted a successful exploratory test. However, their attempt was stopped when the US PepsiCo branch denied the plan (12, 13).
Despite the high costs and a low number of attempts, some companies have successfully managed to gain publicity via the space they desired. Some of them include:
The TBS, Tokyo Broadcasting System, paid about 11 million USD in 1990 to the Russian space agency for the flight of their journalist Toyohino Akiyama to Mir, a Russian space station. The launch vehicle advertised its logo (14).
In 1996, Pepsi paid about 5 million USD to have a replica of its soda can outside the Russian space station.
An Israeli milk company, Tnuva, filmed a commercial for their product in Mir. The commercial was aired in August 1997 and held the Guinness World Record for the first commercial shot in space (15).
In 2000, Pizza Hut paid about 1 million USD to have its logo on a Proton rocket launched to the ISS by Russia. Also, in 2001, it delivered a 6-inch salami pizza to the ISS (16).
While we are on the topic of sending food to space, KFC’s 2017 Zinger-1 mission is worth mentioning, where the company has sent its Zinger Sandwich to the edge of space (17).
In 2019, Rocket Lad had sent a shiny object, the Humanity Star, into orbit (18).
Other companies that have successfully gained publicity by pulling off space advertising in one form or another include but are not limited to Nissin Foods, Element 21, Toshiba, and Vegemite (19).
Even though space advertising has recently gained popularity, it is still subject to multiple international treaties and national policies on space commercial activities and advertising.
UN Treaty: In 1996, the Outer Space Treaty set principles of international space law. The treaty determines that all nations have the right to explore outer space. Meaning, space advertising is not subject to global prohibition (20).
UN Treaty: The Space Liability Convention set rules in 1972 that a nation is entirely responsible for damages to space objects launched in its territory. Under the treaty, countries are also responsible for private launches for commercial purposes, including ads (21).
Other nations: 51 US Code 50911 ensures no license or launch permit for activities involving obtrusive space advertising in the US. However, the prohibition doesn’t apply to other advertising forms like displaying the logo (22).
In 2016, Japan legislated a licensing system for private launching. It aimed at stimulating Japanese’s commercial activities in space by supporting third-party liability insurance and channeling more liability onto launching companies for customer assurance who are paying the launchers (23).
Russia has prohibited launches that contaminate outer space and make unfavorable environmental changes. But, there is no definite ban on space ads despite the light pollution and debris they can create (24).
Apart from the US, no other countries have explicit legislative regulations on non-obtrusive advertising (25).
Challenges for Space Advertisers
One of the biggest challenges for obtrusive space advertising is the different regulations across different nations. Since the ads would orbit the Earth, multiple countries can see them across the sky. The differences in advertising regulations make it challenging for ads to be legal across various jurisdictions.
Another challenge is the right to deny the receipt of ads, especially in the US. As of now, there is no clarity on whether we can effectively opt out of receiving space ads. Well, we can always choose not to look into the sky, but there are still multiple challenges.
Another challenge for space advertisers is infringements of property rights. It can be a nuisance for people as most space ads will be bright. Notably, bright objects in the sky can interfere with our sleep cycles. So, yes, space billboards are not a bright new opportunity but a bright new problem.
You may already know that anything that we launch into orbit usually remains in orbit. And things that have surpassed their function use and are not equipped with deorbiting technology are space debris. They can be hazardous as they collide with other functional space objects and lead to a cascading situation known as the Kessler syndrome.
It is also worth mentioning that we have no international consensus on the best way to remove space debris. So, are space billboards a threat to humanity? Oh, yes!
In addition, astronomical observations are quite sensitive to intense light sources in the sky. There are arguments by the international astronomical organizations that artificial satellites made of reflective material adversely impact their observations. Notably, we can compare obtrusive space ads to the moon’s brightness, making it impossible for us to observe faint distant objects (26).
Let’s not even go too technical with radio interferences these space billboards can cause. So, should we prioritize commercials over scientific values? A big fat no!
In short, we believe it is ridiculous to send something in space, our orbit more specifically, where the traffic is already surging (27), for the sole purpose of advertising. Aren’t we bombarded enough with ads here on Earth? Now, they want to take our sky too.
Instead, we believe these companies should spend their resources on bigger issues like climate change and clearing out space debris. Then we can focus on cleaning out our own planet before colonizing the Moon, Mars, Kepler, or Gliese. Hey, Elon Musk, are you reading this?
Moreover, they are already sending thousands of satellites into space as part of their mission, Starlink and Project Kuiper. Imagine aliens stumbling across our humble planet only to be greeted by a bunch of satellites, billboards, and commercials. We are going to pass out!
It is hard to imagine which brands would want to associate themselves with such critics. It may explain why Pepsi had quickly distanced itself after the exploratory test.
If you have been following news around space and billionaires for a while now, you may already know how people are reacting to Jeff Bezos’s space flight and how they are now canceling their Prime subscriptions (28).
On a More Serious Note
In the race to space commercialization, an ad billboard is probably one of the least desirable outcomes, even though SpaceX’s billboard will be far smaller than anything we may see at the side of our highways.
As we mentioned earlier, while there are treaties and agreements on how we can use space, there are no explicit legislators on why SpaceX or anyone can’t launch a satellite for ads even if they can disrupt our night sky.
SpaceX is already under scrutiny from scientists, astronomers, and people in general since it launched the first batch of 60 satellites for its Starlink project back in May 2019. And reports suggest that these low-orbit satellites are already disrupting astronomers’ work (29).
And even though everyone agrees that what is happening right now impacts our atmosphere, the night sky, and space. No one has quantified the damage or determined how we can mitigate it.
Fortunately, as of writing this story, discussions are underway on what we can do about it. Reportedly, the Dark and Quiet Skies Conference for Science and Society will take place in Spain from October 3 to October 7, 2021, organized by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, the Institutio de Astrofisica de Canarias, and the International Astronomical Union (30).
Let’s hope we manage to ensure that our skies remain clear. But, until then, stay tuned for more updates!