Saturday, August 30, 2014

Orbital Zoning

For nearly sixty years humans have been sending objects into orbit. Some are weather satellites, others digital TV, and some are just junk. Though there is a huge volume of orbital space above Earth to put satellites in, orbits are in fact filling up and and are largely uncontrolled. As the private space industry grows the need to zone and regulate orbits for particular uses and organizations will be increasingly necessary to create a safe and effective orbital airspace.

To clarify this concept let's look at a scenario. Imagine a company, such as Bigelow Aerospace, has constructed an orbital hotel. The station sits in an orbit several hundred miles above Earth. Now another company developing a space BattleBots show decided to set up shop in the same orbit. This is allowed because no one owns the orbit or can prohibit anyone else form using it. Unfortunately, the Spacebots end up smashing each other to pieces in the orbit, much to the enjoyment of Earth spectators. But now there is an increase of debris which could easily puncture the soft hull of the space station. While the Spacebots would be held accountable for the damage the entire problem could have been avoided if the space station was able to zone its orbit for only human occupation. This is a slightly silly circumstance but the point is clear.

The same type of situation is the reason that factories can't be built in residential areas here on Earth. Similar rules must be set up for space. It will not be possible for space to continually be treated as an international free area like Antarctica. People and organizations actually want to go to space and get something from it, in this case a location.

Orbits are real estate, just as on Earth. There are certain locations better suited for certain tasks and some that are filled with dangerous litter. But there are a lot of orbits above the earth. The 3-D nature of the Void allows for this, as well as the fact that everything in orbit is moving and can be coordinated.

So how does one go about defining property in a place where there are no boundaries but simply the "idea" of locations?

Well the simple place to begin would be with altitude. Space could be divided into more altitude layers. Within those altitudes one could then define particular orbits just as radio bands are defined on earth. Particular altitudes could be reserved for earth observation, others for communications satellites, and then the areas above the debris-filled orbits could be reserved for space stations.

Then within the altitudes particular orbital trajectories could be defined. A company would be able to purchase these trajectories and maintain its hardware within them . But this opens the question, from whom does one purchase an orbit, something which transcends any type of Earth boundary.

The likely solution would be to allow for homesteading of defined orbits. Organizations and Countries could agree to allow ownership of particular orbits through a system of placing improvements in them. Then once ownership of an orbit has been established, through the International Homesteading System, the orbits can be sold. This does require international cooperation but that is the case in many aspects of Space Law and a topic for another time.

Enforcement of homesteading boundaries will be an issue. How to keep vehicles in their space and ensure no one trespasses will initially fall to ground-based tracking and monitoring of payloads as they are launched. But eventually a Space Authority will have to be established to act as a "traffic cop" for Earth orbits. It would go around checking the authorizations of certain satellites to be in certain areas and perhaps "towing" them when they are not.

The issue of spy satellites will also be a problem. These craft are some of the best kept secrets in the world. Governments will not want to register spy satellites or even relegate them to particular altitudes. But as slowly as orbital space is filling this issue may resolve itself before it has to be addressed for private needs.

Space will eventually have to have a system of organization or regulation. Responsibility for space debris and sharing of orbits will become too large of issues to simply ignore. Orbits will become crowded and at that point everyone will want to know what is theirs, else the industry could become quite confrontational. This can't happen because it would be self-defeating to the development of a Space Economy.

Note: A particular example of where zoning of orbits would have been useful would have been in the Chinese Satellite Missile Test incident. Again, it is an issue of international relations but if the Space-Faring nations had collaborated to allocate weapons testing orbits, other nations and organizations could have avoided those areas and now not have to dodge debris.


  1. I remember a Colonel Bleep cartoon in the 1960s about the problems caused by too many satellites orbiting the Earth--something about humans being shunned by other space-faring beings because they had junked up their space.

  2. It is a problem and is likely to get worse. Zoning may not be the the right analogy. Things beyond control will enter zones so that debrie from your zone will enter others through no fault of your own. Also orbits overlap, which adds another wrinkle.

    Perhaps a better analogy, which is actually what we already do in part, is air traffic control. We don't let aircraft enter airspace by two restrictions. They must have 1000 of altitude separation which is maintained for ten minutes of airspace ahead of any craft which varies in amount by airspeed.

    The good news is that orbit decay. The bad news is not fast enough. Perhaps speeding that up is part of the solution? Although I could not say how. Many potential solutions may actally create more problems than they solve. One may be you must either leave orbit or park in a decaying orbit after a certain time limit or be held liable/penalized/etc?