Someday soon, star watchers looking for answers in the night sky will be able to see the logo of a soft drink company passing through the Milky Way, or a promotional message from a fast food restaurant.
That's at least the hope of StartRocket, a Russian start-up aimed at putting billboards in space.
The company plans to turn hundreds of tiny satellites into a huge visible screen of Earth – something its CEO, Vlad Sitnikov, said would make him the first man to draw in space since the ancient Greeks grouped stars into constellations.
"New ages require new gods," said the advertising expert to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the world is no longer ruled by Greek deities but by brands and events.
From space hotels to asteroid mining, the ambitious project is the latest in a series of developments, often backed by Silicon Valley capital and technology, considering outer space as a new trade frontier.
But since it was announced in January, the initiative has angered astronomers and raised questions about the need to better regulate who owns the skies – and what's in them.
"It may be a good starting point for reexamining the whole nature of the regulation of space activity," said Christopher Newman, a professor of space law at Northumbria University in Britain.
Sitnikov said he came up with the idea of the space billboard last year after Rocket Lab, the North American rocket propeller company in New Zealand, launched a shiny disco ball called the Humanity Star, where it remained visible to the human eye for months .
"It was the first time anyone made entertainment in space … and advertising is part of entertainment," he said of Moscow.
To work on technical details, he joined experts from Skoltech, a private university in Moscow, he said.
The team plans to put 200 tiny satellites, known as CubeSats, at an altitude of about 500 km in lower orbit by 2021.
The satellites, each equipped with a candle that reflects the sun, would fly together to compose the pixels of a giant screen that could be turned on and off to display short words or logos.
In addition to the brands, the system could be used to promote major events such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl, and even deliver emergency messages in remote, severed or disaster-hit areas where normal means of communication would not work, he said.
The project is technically challenging, but feasible – as long as the company finds investors to pay the bill, Sitnikov said.
Only production costs are expected to reach more than $ 150 million, he said. The company plans to charge about $ 200,000 every eight hours of advertising.
Since the initiative was announced with a promotional video in early January, Sitnikov said he has received thousands of calls from around the world, including about a dozen potential customers.
However, most messages came from disgruntled citizens, he said.
"People hate me because they think that in two years the whole sky will be covered in publicity," he said, explaining that he does not plan the technology to be so intrusive.
The screen would be about the size of a half moon and would be visible for six minutes at a time, potentially from anywhere.
Among those dissatisfied with the idea are astronomers, who are concerned that space billboards could hinder research.
"Advertising in space seems to be simply a costly and expensive way of ruining the night sky view," said Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain.
"Light pollution in the ground already makes it difficult to see the sky – the stars and the Milky Way – from many places, and space advertising is a way to destroy this beautiful view of the remaining pristine sites."
However, from a legal point of view, there is not much they can do about it, according to law experts.
Life away from the land is regulated primarily by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Drawn up during the Cold War, it deals mostly with peace and exploitation and says nothing about propaganda, said Newman of Northumbria University.
"We know that the use of outer space for the placement of nuclear weapons is prohibited, but there is no such ban on the placement of giant billboards," he said.
The treaty bans countries from claiming space and celestial bodies for themselves, but allows its use – opening the door to business exploration by StartRocket and others.
"In principle, activities like this would be allowed," said Christopher Johnson, a space law consultant at Secure World Foundation, a US think tank.
But StartRocket shows that space is about to become much more crowded than it was in the 1960s – and new global rules for balancing conflicting interests may soon come in handy, Newman said.
"Space is becoming an area where everyone has an interest – not just superpowers, but private companies, citizens, governments – it's an area where there's an increasing amount of activity," he said.
"There is a need to look at these new uses of outer space that people have not really thought of before."
To date, the United States and Luxembourg are the only countries that have adopted national legislation on the commercial exploitation of celestial bodies.
Australian Associated Press