Prometheus came out last weekend. It’s… ambitious. Reviews are mixed. But, as always, we’re not here to talk about the merits of the movie as such, but rather about legal issues raised by the movie. The most obvious one here is the issue of private space exploration and travel. The premise of the movie is that in the late 21st century, Weyland Corporation spends $1 trillion on a project to send a research team to a moon orbiting a gas giant in the Gliese 86 system. Can a private corporation decide to just do this?
Well… sort of. We’re going to assume that $1 trillion will buy you more than a cup of coffee in 2089—though it might not if monetary regulators keep doing what they’re doing—and that spending that amount of money will permit one to figure out how to send a spacecraft with its crew on a journey of 35 light-years in a reasonable amount of time. Which is pretty ambitious, but whatever. It turns out that legally speaking, the most difficult part of all of this is the part before the Prometheus leaves orbit.
Space is not part of any nation’s jurisdiction. We talked about this last March, and while there are statutes that extend terrestrial laws to extraterrestrial craft, no nation has made any extraterrestrial territorial claims. The Outer Space Treaty (text), ratified by the US and ninety-nine other countries, actually prohibits such claims. There’s also a Moon Treaty (text) which prohibits private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate, but only ten nations have ratified it, and none of them are major space-faring powers. The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t deal with resource extraction, but the Moon Treaty does, and requires that any activities like mining be regulated by an international regime. There is no such regime at the moment.
But there is a pretty rigorous regime for dealing with orbital space. Orbital mechanics are one of the more complicated things you can do with applied math, and while space as a whole is vast, near-Earth orbit is really, really crowded, both with satellites and random junk. So forgetting the legality for a minute, simply launching a satellite without coordinating with anyone else is likely to involve crashing into something after not very long. As getting a single kilo of stuff from the ground into LEO costs upwards of $5,000-10,000, just for the transport costs, it’s safe to say that the people who have stuff up there are going to be more than a little annoyed if you go breaking it.
Regulation of orbital resources has largely fallen under the jurisdiction of telecommunications regulators, as the single biggest thing that people do with satellites is send data around. The Federal Communications Commission has a good explanation of the process here. In practice, orbital space is regulated by the International Telecommunications Union, a branch of the UN. More accurately the ITU assists national telecom regulators in coordinating about these issues.
Now a full explanation of the process here goes beyond the expertise of your humble authors. Suffice it to say that we’re dealing with both national and international law, encompassing statutes, regulations, and treaties, and a wicked complicated licensing regime. But we’re confident that they’d agree with us that if Weyland Corporation had decided to construct the Prometheus in orbit, that means a semi-permanent orbital facility, which means playing ball with national and international regulators. Given the nature of the project, getting said regulators to play ball might not be the easiest thing in the world. So it’s possible that a not-insignificant percentage of that $1 trillion was spent on getting permission from the appropriate parties.
But even if they’d built the thing on Earth (or launched the parts for the orbital construction from the surface), there’s still the possibility of problems. We did a two part series on the FAA early last year. Suffice it to say that the FAA cares about large flying objects, including spacecraft. So even launching from a terrestrial facility would mean letting lots of people know about it or running the real risk of having that very expensive investment shot down for violating somebody’s airspace. The permitting process is complex but by no means impossible, as demonstrated by commercial spacecraft like the SpaceX Dragon and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed over 200 private launches since 1989 as well as 8 commercial spaceports.
All of that being said, once they leave Earth orbit… that’s about it. There isn’t really any applicable law beyond that. Humanity hasn’t even really established control over Earth’s Lagrangian points yet. Only nine missions have sent satellites to Lagrangian points, all of which are at L1 and L2, with none at the leading or trailing Trojan points at L4 and L5. These have the potential to be of immense value, but there is no currently applicable treaty involving them. And no one has even really suggested treaties governing extra-solar missions, because no one has seriously proposed any. At this point in history, the basic thought seems to be that any actor large enough to want to throw a few billion dollars into the void can go right ahead and do that, just so long as they don’t break anything on the way out. But work with the ITU and national aviation regulators about leaving Earth orbit and space is your oyster.
So could Weyland Corporation really have launched the Prometheus mission under current law? Assuming they can get the technical side of things worked out, there isn’t any obvious legal reason why not. Various governments might object in theory to the project, and they might try to use their rather limited control over orbital resources to slow things down, but this doesn’t seem to be anything that a boatload of money and the willingness to change terrestrial jurisdictions wouldn’t be able to solve. The plot of the movie might not make any sense, but to the extent that the law is implicated here, things seem to work.