People don’t live on the moon yet, but humanity is already making strides to plaster it with advertisements. The space travel startup Ispace Inc. just wrapped up a new round of funding that nets the Japan-based company more than $90 million, to be used in the development of a lunar lander and two uncrewed missions to the moon by 2020. According to Bloomberg:
Ispace says the initial business opportunity is mostly in marketing, including slapping corporate logos on its spacecrafts and rovers, and delivering images to be used in advertising. A successful landing will also let the company offer what it calls a “projection mapping service” – a small billboard on the moon’s surface. The startup says there will be demand from corporations looking to show off their logos with Earth in the background.
A billboard on the moon! Well, something like that—a company spokesman told me that what Bloomberg is calling a billboard will technically be a projection of an advertisement onto a lunar lander, rover, or other vehicle, not a physical board. But it will serve the same purpose as a traditional billboard, which should make future colonists feel right at home.
Is it legal to advertise on the moon? The short answer is yeah. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which Japan has signed, declares space is free for all nations to explore; no celestial body can be claimed by any sovereign entity; no weapons of mass destruction are allowed in space; and individual nations (plus any businesses or citizens under their authority) must refrain from causing damage or contamination as a result of their space activities, or at the very least they have to clean up after themselves. It’s hard to imagine a projected billboard would violate any of these terms. (Though if some nations or groups thought it was creating harmful interference of some sort—maybe light pollution or disruption for instruments being used by other parties—then Ispace could be in violation of international law, and Japan would be responsible for taking the company to task and making sure the problem was rectified.)
Ispace is not the first company to try to bring ads to space. In 1990, a Japanese television network bought a seat on a Russian flight into space for one of its reporters and got to feature its logo on the side of the Soyuz launch vehicle. Russia has allowed advertisements on many of its rockets and astronaut suits used in missions for years. But Ispace is the first to attempt to advertise on the actual moon, and there does not appear to be a Japanese law to stop it.
So what if an American company tried something like this? The most relevant attempt occurred in 1993, when an American company called Space Marketing Inc. proposed launching a 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer illuminated billboard into low Earth orbit. At that size and with the brightness the company planned, the billboard would be comparable to the size and brightness of the moon at night. That proposal ultimately went nowhere, in part because it turns out that if you build something that’s a square kilometer and put it into orbit, it’s going to get pummeled to bits by orbital debris.
The hoopla around that proposal, though, prompted then–Rep. Ed Markey (now the junior senator from Massachusetts) to introduce a bill into Congress banning all U.S. space advertisements, which was quickly amended to just ban “obtrusive advertising” (so sponsors could still stick their logos on the sides of rockets, spacecraft, or astronaut clothing). The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for enforcing this law, and any party issued a license to launch into space must abide by it.
According to Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, professor emerita in space law at the University of Mississippi and editor in chief emerita for the Journal of Space Law, the logic behind the bill was that large ads, like the Space Marketing billboard, could increase light pollution and create a brighter night sky, which would impede astronomical observations of space, interfere with navigation satellites that use star trackers and sun sensors to calibrate their measurements, and just generally be an annoying eyesore to the public. According to the FAA, “obtrusive” means anything “capable of being recognized by a human being on the surface of the Earth without the aid of a telescope or other technological device.”
For an advertisement on the moon to be visible from Earth using a telescope, it would have to be gigantic and brighter than virtually any other object in the night sky. That’s not, however, what Ispace is seeking—its ads would basically be photo-ops for companies that want the lunar landscape to be a backdrop for their logos and couldn’t be seen from Earth without ultrapowerful instruments. (And Ispace, of course, doesn’t need to abide by U.S. laws, unless it’s collaborating with an American company.)
The truth is that this is all pretty unprecedented. It’s debatable what qualifies as “harmful interference,” and it’s unclear exactly how the international community or select nations might work to enforce relevant laws and regulations. But with how fast the private space industry is growing these days, questions over space advertisements are likely to pop up again and again, perhaps sooner rather than later. (“Human beings aren’t heading to the stars to become poor,” the CEO of Ispace said at a press event last week.)
After talking to me about space law, Gabrynowicz expressed her own misgivings. “Earth-based billboard-studded country roads provide a cautionary statement about advertising in space,” says Gabrynowicz. “The sky—if you can see it from where you are—is beautiful. Be careful with it.”