Even Space Isn’t Safe From Ads

Companies want to turn satellites into billboards.

A glass of soda and a pizza in the night sky.
The future?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Imagine you’ve stepped outside on a crisp, clear autumn evening. Ah, the beautiful night sky! The awe of the cosmos! How very small we are in this vast universe, tiny specks on this pale blue dot, lucky to exist in this geological instant that Earth is hospitable to life. Truly, the sky gives us the gift of perspective—wait, is that the Pepsi logo?

It could be, at least starting in 2021. Earlier this month, Russian company StartRocket confirmed to Futurism that it was working on launching satellite ads to be viewed in the night sky. Its first client, the company said, was PepsiCo. A PepsiCo rep later confirmed to Gizmodo that the company did partner with StartRocket for an “exploratory test” advertising an energy drink but had no plans to continue advertising in space. It’s unclear whether StartRocket may have more clients lined up.

In a video detailing its vision, StartRocket’s ads rise in the sky behind the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, a Bali temple, London’s Tower Bridge, and Arctic icebergs, competing with the aurora borealis. (StartRocket’s website depicts a dystopia that I cannot possibly capture in words.) The ads would be projected by a constellation of satellites orbiting at about 280 miles above Earth, each equipped with light-reflecting Mylar sails.

Since Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, satellites have been a mostly invisible part of our daily lives, allowing us to make phone calls, monitor the weather, and map our locations. We can sometimes catch them in the night sky, but they’re hard to spot, even if you’re looking for them. Satellites like StartRocket’s Orbital Display are meant to be watched, and as satellites are becoming easier to launch, our skies could become the biggest screen of all.

StartRocket isn’t alone in the for-profit entertainment satellite game. ALE is the Japanese startup behind Sky Canvas, a project to launch a series of satellites that release shooting stars on demand—“a whole new level of entertainment,” its website boasts. Its first show will take place over Hiroshima in spring 2020.

Then there’s U.S.-based company Elysium Space, which takes artificial shooting stars to a new level: It puts on a show made from your loved ones’ ashes. The company launches a satellite full of cremated remains, which orbits Earth for a couple of years as families and friends can track its journey via an app. When the satellite falls out of orbit and burns up in the atmosphere, voilà, a shooting star. (The company also offers an option to drop off your remains on the moon, which seems like a cold, lonely place to spend eternity, but OK.) Still, that final show will not necessarily be visible to your loved ones. It’s unclear whether Elysium Space notifies them of the satellite’s reentry (we have contacted the company and will update this piece with their response), and even if it does, the festivities might happen on the other side of the planet from them, or during the day.

And why stop at shooting stars? A Chinese company is trying to make an entire fake moon. In October, Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute Co. announced at a conference that it plans to launch an “artificial moon” satellite eight times brighter than the actual moon. The satellite would remain trained on the city of Chengdu, rendering streetlamps obsolete. How all this would work has not been made public, but CASC says it will be launching as soon as 2020.

Other showy satellites are intended to be enjoyed as space art. In January, a satellite containing a sculpture called Orbital Reflector hitched a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Other satellites included one from Elysium Space, plus one housing a 24-karat gold jar with a bust of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first black American astronaut, inside.) Orbital Reflector, which doesn’t not look like a giant space phallus, was designed by artist Trevor Paglen and was launched in partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art. The idea behind it is “transforming ‘space’ into ‘place,’ ” says the project’s website. “It makes visible the invisible, thereby rekindling our imaginations and fueling potential for the future.”

There’s a similar hand-wavy explanation behind the Humanity Star, a 3-foot-wide mirrored geodesic sphere launched last year by U.S.-based startup Rocket Lab. According to the company, the giant space disco ball was “designed to be a temporary symbol in the night sky that encouraged everyone to look up, ponder humanity’s place in the universe and think about how we can work together as one species to solve the challenges facing us all.”

Funny that Rocket Lab mentions solving challenges, given that these visible satellite projects have created new problems, both in space and here on Earth. The Humanity Star, for instance, was met with concern by dark-sky activists for its claims that it would be the brightest object in the night sky. Astronomers, too, were concerned that a new bright object in the sky could interfere with their work. Much to the relief of its critics, the Humanity Star did not reflect as much light as initially promised and fell out of orbit after just two months. (The project was originally meant to last nine months.)

But other bright sky projects, like Chengdu’s artificial moon, have the potential to be disruptive. Scientists studying light pollution have found evidence that artificial light messes with the natural biological processes of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals (like humans!), and even plants. Anything that obviates the use of streetlamps seems like it’d be just as troublesome, if not more so, for the natural world.

The influx of satellites for art or commercial purposes also introduces a logistical problem for national and international authorities, which must keep tabs on what goes into our skies. Many of these new projects, including Orbital Display’s ads, Orbital Reflector, and Elysium Space, are tiny satellites called CubeSats—10-centimeter cubes that weigh up to 20 pounds. They’re growing more popular year by year—75 launched in 2014, more than 200 in 2017, and more than 500 slated for this year—and if we want to communicate with those satellites or track their movements from Earth, each needs its own radio frequency. There are a finite number of frequencies available, and they’re managed by a U.N. agency.

There are also systems for tracking satellites. The one managed by the U.S. has been holding up fans’ ability to monitor Orbital Reflector. In mid-January, six weeks after the satellite launched, Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art wrote in a statement that the U.S. Air Force’s division had yet to assign the satellite a tracking ID, which meant it was unable to unfurl the sculpture part of the satellite. (I reached out to the museum’s communications VP to ask if there were any updates but was told there weren’t any yet.) This problem will continue, write the authors of a 2018 space policy paper, “particularly because some of [these small satellites] will be in orbit for a limited period of time,” and may not be properly registered in national registries, “especially in those States which do not have appropriate regulatory and administrative provisions for this purpose.”

Granted, some of these projects may not get off the ground at all, literally or figuratively. Technically, StartRocket could launch its satellites—there are no specific rules prohibiting ads in space—but there’s no guarantee they’ll work as intended. Small satellites can fall out of orbit quickly, as the Humanity Star’s short tenure showed us. They lack the boosters that allow bigger satellites to readjust themselves, and keeping an array of satellites in position to reflect sunlight for ads could prove to be a major challenge, leading some folks to doubt whether StartRocket’s ad campaign is feasible at all. Similarly, experts are skeptical Chengdu’s artificial moon could aim light precisely enough to focus just on a single city.

Even if these satellites burn out quickly, launching them at all adds to the growing problem of space junk. The European Space Agency estimates that there are more than 128 million pieces of debris just careening through space, and that’s expected to increase significantly as we keep launching crap into space, especially gimmicky satellites only designed to stay in orbit for a few months. And though the likelihood of a collision is fairly small, each tiny satellite is potentially a dangerous projectile. In 2016, a dime-size space fragment caused damage to the solar panel of European radar satellite Sentinel-1A. We should, in theory, be able to track each 10-centimeter CubeSat launched, but in the case of an accident, it could cause a lot of damage to useful infrastructure, like a communications or research satellite.

It’s likely to be years until the technology matures enough for space ads and gimmicks to become the norm, and one hopes that space law experts might get their act together before then to outlaw the use of the night sky as a billboard. Until then, let’s be glad that Pepsi ads and wacky art installations are relegated to Earth.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.