Advertising from Space:
A Real Danger?

André HECK
Strasbourg Astronomical Observatory
11, rue de l'Université
F-67000 Strasbourg, France


This paper recommends we keep a close eye on what is going on around our planet as all improvements brought on ground in terms of light pollution could be quickly ruined by undesirable luminous objects put in Earth orbit. A `pessimistic' approach would have it that, in the current global market context, if a company realizes that the technology is at hand and that the corresponding RoI is appealing, we could have advertising from space in a couple of years. The `optimistic view' would moderate this by saying that things are not so simple even if it would be difficult to counter some preliminaries such as luminaries put in Earth orbit for humanitarian purposes (reflecting sunlight on locations with emergency situations and/or natural disasters). Beyond developing ties with other scientific disciplines concerned with environmental impact and disruption of circadian cycles in living beings including humans, appropriate strategies would be to secure public support by ad hoc information and education. Astronomy is in need of a `cosmic Cousteau'.


For an astronomer, advertising from space evokes images of undesirable squads of luminous scarecrows orbiting the Earth and polluting the night skies. For an advertiser, it would be a superlative challenge coupled to an ideal summernight dream: getting in one go a message through to potentially billions of receivers. For a fiction writer, advertising from space is the kind of gimmicks used here and there with literary degrees of freedom.

A conference such as this one is a good opportunity to ask oneself what it would be coming to in real life and what could be expected in today's context.

To avoid any misunderstanding, it should however be emphasized from the start that this paper is not concerned with advertising in spacecraft (astronomaut suits, displays, etc.) as this would in no way interfere with ground-based astronomical observing. Space debris, commonly associated to space threats, are also totally extraneous to the matter discussed here. See for instance the dedicated sessions on space debris in Crawford (1992), McNally (1994), and Cohen & Sullivan (2001).

This paper is definitely concerned with spacecraft intended to symbolize and/or to carry messages of all kinds, and therefore interfering with the natural night sky patterns and/or increasing the natural night sky background. This paper is of course also concerned with any kind of equipment aimed at illuminating the ground from space for any good or bad reason.

This paper is deliberately focussed on optical astronomy. Some of the projects currently in preparation call actually for `multimedia' messages (visual, radio, telephony, etc.). For the radio range, see the dedicated sessions in the proceedings mentioned earlier.

The context

We are currently living in a globalization era and in a world where the concept of return on investment (RoI) is reigning almost almighthily. For an advertiser, launching a spacecraft carrying a message that could potentially be seen/received by most inhabitants of the planet would both
-- give access to the largest audience that could be dreamed of, and
-- dramatically reduce the cost per viewer/receiver,
in spite of the challenge to produce something understandable across language and education barriers.

As it will be shown hereafter, there have been precedents, or at least attempts of launching commemorative spacecraft. So far, astronomers, together with allies in other fields, were successful in preventing such launches, but they were close calls. And only battles have been won so far, not the war as more projects are in store.

The danger is that the launch of a commemorative spacecraft, even a short-lived one, would be a precedent. It would not only show that the technology is available, but, even worse, it would open the door to and lay grounds for more and more projects of the same vein that it would then be impossible to turn down. With time and multiplication of such spacecraft, a drift towards less commemorative, artistic or `honorable' projects would be inevitable and, obviously, first sponsored messages, then purely commercial ones, could be expected across our skies.

There are certainly nowadays moral pressures, `gentlemen' agreements, strong official recommendations from international bodies for not polluting the skies with such dispensable spacecraft. But we see regularly how international agreements, even at the highest level, signed with all the mediatic hype, are ignored or denounced years later when deemed appropriate by one of the partners.

The current crack through which commercial projects could sweep in is the dramatic need of money of some space agencies. Denis Tito and Mark Suttleworth have each paid 20M USD to have a ride up there. Although generally confidential, global advertising budgets of multinational companies are certainly higher than that, proportionally speaking if one takes into account that the whole Earth population is in fact at stake here. A financial advantage would of course be a non-negligible motivation to resort to space advertising for products marketed world-wide. And there are plenty of these nowadays.


Precedents or `preliminaries' range from memorial services to celebrations of anniversaries via space art and luminaries for emergency situations. As already mentioned earlier, beyond showing that the technology is at hand, they open the door and lay grounds for less honorable, dispensable, projects.


Celestis provides space memorial services by sending human cremated remains into space. Several types of services are available: Earthview (Earth orbit), Lunar (Moon), Voyager (deep space) and Ad Astra (star naming, etc.). Celestis had several successful flights so far and is planning additional ones from what seems to be a juicy market.

Interferences with astronomy can be claimed not only with the star naming activity, but also from the flights. For instance, Celestis boasts the following on one of its web pages (March 2002):
``Celestis provided its first Lunar Service mission by helping friends of noted planetary geologist Dr. Eugene Shoemaker include a symbolic portion of Dr. Shoemaker's remains on the NASA Lunar Prospector mission launched January 6,1998. The spacecraft impacted the lunar surface inside a permanently shadowed crater near the south lunar pole, creating a permanent monument to Dr. Shoemaker. Impact occurred at 4:52 AM Central Daylight Time, July 31, 1999.''

One could seriously question the continuation of such practices, even if the damage to our satellite has been minimal and part of a larger scientific experiment.

On another web page (March 2002), the orbital lifetime of Celestis Earthview missions is announced to be typically between several months and several decades. There is no harm to observational astronomy as long as the spacecraft remains invisible from the ground-based instruments, but part of the original idea was also to provide the relatives of defunct people with ephemerides of the spacecraft passages in the night sky ...

It should be stressed that, contrary to some common belief, only a portion of the cremated remains is sent into space and that the small capsules containing them are not dispersed out there. They are gathered into canisters remaining inside the spacecraft until it re-enters the Earth's upper atmosphere and burns in it -- providing de facto a second cremation.


There have been several `serious' projects for celebrating anniversaries by sending into Earth orbit clearly visible spacecraft -- the whole purpose of the exercise, of course. As illustrated hereafter, such projects can be associated to space art. Among the anniversaries concerned were: the Statue of Liberty (in 1986), the French Revolution and the Eiffel Tower (in 1989), and UNESCO (in 1995).

For instance, the Eiffel Tower anniversary triggered two serious contenders:
-- L'Anneau de Lumière, a `light ring' of 24km in diameter, to be put at an altitude of 800km, with a 90min orbit and a projected lifetime of three years;
-- Arsat, a curved reflecting sail, brighter than the Full Moon, planned with an 11h orbit and a footprint on ground of about 3000x5000km2.
Both projects were turned down, but Arsat seems to be still alive per se.

The UNESCO anniversary was also a close call and the International Astronomical Union had really to flex its muscles then (see, e.g., McNally 1996). The project selected, the Star of Tolerance, was born in 1992 and is still alive per se today. It is basically a reflecting sail, brighter than Sirius, that has now turned multimediatic: it would for instance deliver a tolerance message on your mobile phone when above the horizon, and so on.

Space Art

Space art has already been discussed elsewhere (see e.g. Murdin 1991). Projects for art spacecraft abound nowadays and a quick scan of the web easily reveals plenty of them:
-- Pierre Comte -- ARSAT
-- Pierre Comte -- Signature Terre
-- Jean-Marc Phillipe -- Messages
-- The Eiffel Tower -- Circle of Light
-- Lowery Burgess -- Quiet Axis
-- Ezra Orion -- Cosmic Cathedral
-- Richard Clar -- Space Flight Dolphin
-- Richard Clar -- Collision Report Coming Soon
-- Arthur Woods -- Cosmic Dancer Sculpture
-- Arthur Woods -- SEEDS
-- OURS Foundation -- Space Peace Sculptures
-- OURS Foundation -- Ars Ad Astra
-- OURS Foundation -- Art to the Stars Exhibition
-- UNESCO -Star of Tolerance
-- Planetary Society -- Visions of Mars
-- Ken Fair -- MarsWest
-- and so on.

This list is of course not exhaustive nor probably fully representative. It is just aiming at giving an idea of the diversity of projects and creators, resp. inspirators and patrons. It actually includes some of the projects mentioned in the previous section.

As astronomers, our position towards those projects should be very simple: tolerance zero, and this in spite of a lot of sympathy towards art and well-intended messages brought to the largest number possible of humans. The real problem here is that, when a precedent will be created, how would it be possible to stop the process?


Luminaries can be considered as Trojan horses towards the multiplication of undesired luminous objects in Earth orbit.

The principle of those Znamya-type projects is to reflect sunlight down to selected places on the Earth surface. The humanitarian reasons routinely put forward are natural disasters and emergency situations, but other motivations have also been mentioned, such as open-sky mining, large-size construction works, and so on.

Two models have been designed for such reflectors:
-- the 25m model with a footprint on ground of 5x7 km2 and a brightness estimated at 5 to 10 times the Full Moon;
-- the 200m model with a footprint of about 15x45 km2 and a brightness ranging between 10 and 100 times the Full Moon.
An attempt to deploy the 25m model on Mir failed on 4 February 1999. It is said that another attempt will take place on the International Space Station some time in the future. Such a project is difficult to counter because of its potential humanitarian benefits.

Because of the low orbit of space stations, such experiments reflecting the light of the Sun would work only at the beginning and at the end of the nights (the twilight periods). If the technology is mastered, higher orbits and/or non-solar light sources would certainly be used, making these luminaries fully efficient during the entirety of the nights.

Everyone involved in space activities knows that not everything goes always right in spite of all the security procedures. One can then imagine the damage to observational astronomy if one of those luminaries goes out of control and start scanning the Earth with a beam that could not be switched off ...

Which kind of advertising?

It seems obvious [1] that classical media (banners, posters, billboards, and so on) have to be left aside in favour of something more specific to the particular location of the advertising tool.

To suppress the barrier of languages and education, simple symbolic logos should be preferred. In particular, as the message has to be easily identifiable by people seeing it from the Northern hemisphere as well as from the Southern hemisphere, or from the East as well as from the West, such logos should have a symmetrical structure, perhaps even an isotropic one.

An advertising spacecraft would also be most efficient when low on the horizon at the beginning of the nights in densely populated areas. It should attract attention, so it should move, flash or rotate to induce brightness variations. From the projects described above, one could expect a brightness going from that of the brightest stars to that equivalent to several full Moons.

However, even if a cluster of such orbiting logos would be spread around the Earth, it is obvious their efficiency would not be unhindered: they would be visible only during the nights and through clear weather. Unless new technology allows more elaborate messages, these would be rather rudimentary in today's conditions. Their lack of variety could then induce quick lassitude or weariness in viewers. These could not be expected either to keep for long their head starring high up in the skies. Last but not least, and hype from a space `first' aside, advertising from space must be proven financially more efficient a posteriori than ground-based campaigns.

Finally, any potential damage to ground-based observational facilities should be assessed against the limited geographical distribution of these (in this respect, check out maps in Heck 2000).

Possible strategies

The first question that we should probably ask ourselves is: ``What is the weight of astronomy in today's society?". If we, astronomers, are convinced of our good right, others consider us as rather small players, both economically and in number of people. Such an attitude can already be found routinely in the publishing world, for instance.

Additionally, after the end of the Cold War and long after the landing of man on the Moon, the society at large has now other priorities (such as health, environment, security, unemployment, ...) than space investigations or cosmological perceptions.

A policy of securing international treaties and agreements should of course be pursued (see for instance United Nations 2001), even if experience shows that they might be denounced, overturned or simply ignored whenever appropriate. Such protections are thus very fragile. In most cases, the lack of effective sanctions reinforces the weakness of such an approach.

Could the cost of ever more expensive ground-based facilities be invoked? Possible damage to extremely sensitive detectors that would be accidently illuminated by bright objects, observations ruined by field crossings or closeness of advertising spacecraft, and more generally the reduction of useful observing time and accessible sky area could a priori be used as arguments. One should however be careful with such an approach as incompetent or not fully aware decision makers/takers could then recommend we put all our instrumentation in space -- something they could see as quite beneficial for the space industry, but a step which would not be appropriate nor acceptable for us today.

Surfing on the current environmental wave is probably a sounder strategy. The `Last Frontier' is not Alaska (as they say there), but the deep space. The best perception we can have from it comes from dark starry skies. These can thus be considered as natural treasures or resources. A country like Chile has already understood this with its lighting regulation law of 1998, the application of which is supervised by a ministerial agency (CONAMA).

Developing ties with disciplines investigating physiological effects (such as circadian `spikes', disruptions of circadian cycles, sleep disorders, and so on) in living beings, including humans, is also strongly advisable. This has been well understood by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Economically and sociologically speaking, it seems now well established that not-well-rested populations are less productive and more unruly. This should be a concern for our policy setters in these times of global intensive economy and of increasing urban violence.

Final comments

While astronomers are not aiming at totally black nights on Earth (but at a better, safer, more efficient and glareless lighting directed only where it should illuminate), the tolerance towards foreign luminous objects in the night sky should simply be zero.

The activity against light pollution (including advertizing from space) belongs to a more general framework of improving the quality of life (ours and that of our followers): respect of natural resources, proper handling of garbage and used fluids, reduction of nuisances of all kinds, and so on.

It is certainly a concern for all of us since we currently have no high-profile `cosmic Cousteau' to carry world-wide the good word on cosmic depths and wildlife. Therefore significant long-term efforts should be devoted to related information and education in order to secure appropriate public support. By no means should we be accused of a social deficit in this respect by the following generations.


I am grateful to the conference organizers for allowing me to present this paper on an often underestimated, if not unsuspected but real, threat to ground-based astronomical observing.


  1. Not to everyone apparently: on 1st July 1993, a kind of surrealistic debate at the US Congress extensively referred to ``vast orbital displays" made of ``square mile-size billboards" -- and apparently totally ignored the questions regarding feasibility and legibility (see text).


Paper presented at the `International Conference on Light Pollution', 5-7 March 2002, La Serena, Chile. The proceedings of the conference, edited by H. Schwarz, are published by Kluwer under the title `Light Pollution: The Global View'.
© Copyright André HECK, 2002 - current year.