What has happened?
Highly ambitious start-up StartRocket plans to create branded displays in the Earth’s atmosphere using CubeStats, small and reflectively lit cube satellites. The “space ads” aim to launch by 2021 and will be able to display pictures, logos, and moving images in the night sky. The Russian start-up previously had the backing of Pepsi through a partnership on an orbital advertising campaign, however, the brand has backed away from the association due to public criticism of the idea.
Advertising in space is not a revolutionary new concept. Space Marketing Inc. originally proposed the idea back in the 90’s and was met with great public opposition. RocketLab launched a passive satellite in January, 2018 that was designed to produce flares visible from Earth as a reminder of how fragile our place was in the universe. This was met with almost universal derision by astronomers, calling it “an act of vandalism of the night sky”.
Unlike most other forms of advertising, the laws surrounding the advertising rights for space only apply to launches within the United States and branding on the space station itself. There’s a moral quandary to be found here; since space is held in the “Common Heritage of Mankind” is it right to advertise within it and if so, who regulates advertising when it is no longer on this planet?.