ONCE in the Andes, I walked across a vast ravine, majestic in its dimensions. Suspended across it was a gigantic and hideous banner, legible for many miles, proclaiming in Spanish: "Drink Coca Cola."
Disfiguring magnificent surroundings with ugly displays, whether to advertise or merely to show off, is a repulsive habit. It already extends into the night sky, and may even one day contaminate the Moon.
In Southampton last year, a plan to light up the sky with laser beams was only prevented when the people kicked out the city council. The sky beam of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, with 40 billion candelas, is the world's brightest light. The image created by the beam of the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland resembles a brilliant nearby galaxy.
Fifteen years ago, a company called Space Marketing came up with a scheme to put into orbit a brightly lit billboard half a square mile across that would be as bright as the full Moon. Only with difficulty was this prevented.
A year later there was a plan to mark the 50th anniversary of UNESCO with two huge balloons in low Earth orbit. Like the billboard, this was only stopped at the last minute by public protest. A similar scheme was attempted in 1989 to mark the centenary of the Eiffel Tower.
The proponents of these plans had an invariable argument that boiled down to: "The astronomers think they own the sky. But they don't, the people do!"
If science fiction is any judge we may be less lucky in the future in stopping them. In Frederic Brown's 1945 short story "Pi in the Sky", an inventor rearranges the positions of the stars to form an advertising slogan. (They aren't really rearranged; he uses an optical device to make them appear to be in different places.)
In Robert Heinlein's 1951 novel The Man Who Sold the Moon, the hero raises funds for his lunar ambitions by describing a method of covering the Moon's surface with advertising slogans and propaganda, and then taking money not to do it-like those unscrupulous journalists who composed scurrilous articles and demanded payment to suppress them.
This story may one day unpleasantly come true. Arthur Upgren, author of Night Has a Thousand Eyes, explains how easy and comparatively cheap it would be to change the appearance of the lunar surface.
Parts of it could be brightened by extra coatings of rock and dust so that those parts could reflect back more sunlight than the rest. Then the brightened parts could be arranged into large words and pictures that would be several orders of magnitude brighter than the rest of the Moon.
New pictures could later cover up old ones like a palimpsest on a painting. Unlike satellite images of billboards or towers, which would be gradually ripped apart by space debris, lunar advertisements would be almost indestructible. As Upgren remarks, "in the future, the cow will not jump over the Moon as it did in the nursery rhyme, but will jump over Joe Camel or a leading brand of soap."
In coming centuries even moonless nights could be ruined. In one of the Red Dwarf novels, there is an advertising campaign in which a ship is sent to cause 128 nearby stars to go supernova to spell visibly the words "Coke Adds Life!" even in daylight.
The Universe under one roof. European AstroFest returns to London on February 7 & 8, 2014. The UK's favourite astronomy conference and exhibition. Visit the official website site for more details.
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