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.

27 responses to “Prometheus

  1. Why on Earth, if you’ll pardon the expression, would a government try to restrict private companies from mounting extraterrestrial expeditions when they could let them go on and then just nationalize any resulting benefits if they so chose?

    I personally don’t see a huge future for private space exploitation absent MASSIVE government control, if for no other reason than once you get into space, you can drop rocks on your particular brand of infidels all day long and there’s nothing anybody could do about it. (This for instance is why I’m totally unexcited about the potential for mining resources in space: the difference between a container of high-grade ore and a kinetic weapon is largely hopeful thinking and a benevolent attitude.)

    • TimothyAWiseman

      ” you can drop rocks on your particular brand of infidels all day long and there’s nothing anybody could do about it. ”

      This is true, but only to a degree. It would certainly work and it has been proposed in fiction a number of times (even Shadowrun touched on it). But it is simply ineffecient in general. If you want a weapon, there are simply more effecient ways to do the same amount of damage with more precision. The possible exception is if you are deliberately trying to kill (or seriously harm) an entire planet. In that case, you could conceivably alter the orbit of some preexisting mass so that wherever it hits it would create an extinction level event, and that just might be more energy effecient than just making and using a more conventional weapon.

      As for resource mining, you have a point that anything like that has a chance of causing massive destruction. It would probably never be worthwhile for anything that is remotely common on earth (say iron or even silver). But for things that have a high value in even relatively small quantities (say some of the rare earth elements that are used extensively in electronics), it just might be practical with some fairly reasonable advances in technology.

      • Once you get past the inefficiency of getting into space in the first place, the relative inefficiency of kinetic weapons is more than overcome by their ready availability and the near impossibility of successfully defending against them.

      • Melanie Koleini

        “It would probably never be worthwhile for anything that is remotely common on earth (say iron or even silver).”

        While mining a common element like iron in space for use on Earth doesn’t make much since, mining iron in space for use IN space would make perfect since (if we had the technology to refine metals/create alloys in a vacuum).

      • TimothyAWiseman

        @Marc W., you are right, but that “once you get past the inefficiency of getting into space in the first place” is an absolutely enormous caveat there.

        @Melanie Koleini- Excellent point to add. If we were mining in space for use in space it would make a lot of sense.

    • Most democratic governments aren’t really capable of nationalizing industries anymore. In the US, the Fifth Amendment prohibits any seizure of private property without just compensation. The European Union has a similar prohibition. So a government like China’s could, but then again, the difference between government and corporate activities in China is pretty blurry to begin with. South American countries are becoming somewhat notorious for nationalizing oil fields and utility companies, but such interventions drastically discourage investment. No, the sorts of countries that might have individuals or corporations rich enough to fund a private space mission are countries whose governments can’t just go around taking your stuff without paying for it.

      • If you think that any government would hesitate to nationalize something if the incentives were sufficient, up to and including the USA, well, then, we just have a fundamental difference of opinion as to how the world actually works, and there is no point arguing about it since the only way to resolve it would be to run the experiment.

      • Ryan Davidson

        My data point is that the federal government did not nationalize the production of war materiel in World War II. Tanks, for example, were produced by companies like Chrysler and GM. What’s yours?

      • I have two responses to that:

        1) They didn’t need to. Industry was happy to cooperate and have all the custom they could handle. There were very few legal challenges to #2 below. They got nowhere. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

        2) They didn’t do it legally, as there was no need, but they did do it de-facto. Industrial production was for all intents and purposes controlled by the Federal government for the majority of the war. Raw materials were strictly controlled, consumer goods were strictly rationed.

      • Direct nationalization is discouraged in the West, but many nations heavily in the oil trade have a semi-national oil company. In fact the U.S., oddly enough, is one of the few that doesn’t. The general argument is that oil (and energy in general) is of such national importance that the nation cannot permit it to be left to the private market. Considering that it would be far too easy for a company mining in outer space to accidentally send thousands of rocks moving at 30,000 mph (more than enough to wipe out a city) at the very least the state would heavily regulate the industry if not have a state-space mining company. Only a state pretty far on the laissez-faire side of economics wouldn’t want one.

      • TimothyAWiseman

        You of course are completely right and have a good point. But it is worth remembering that “just compensation” in the eyes of the government may be far less than what the current owner would consdier “just compensation” as can be seen in many eminent domain situations.

        It is also worth remember that heavy regulation can come close to controlling an industry without actually nationalizing it.

  2. You’re thinking of the “mass driver” scenario as shown in the TV series Babylon 5, Marc? (Among many others, I suspect.)

    • I’m thinking about dropping rocks into a gravity well. (Or iceballs, or whatever is handy.) To my knowledge, with no investigation into the matter, this tactic dates back at least to the classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, where the Lunar Republic used it to great effect, initially by dropping grain shipments (“…and complete disbelief that we could bomb Terra, or could matter if we did—they still
      called it ‘throwing rice.'”) Later they dropped purpose-made weapons – because they used a magnetic railgun launcher, the shipments had to have some kind of magnetic exterior, but a sheet of steel and a few simple attitude adjusting rockets was all the weapons needed to work.

      They used the railgun because while Luna’s gravity is only 1/6th that of Earth, it still has to be overcome and they wanted the projectiles to arrive in a reasonable amount of time. If you’re willing to be a little more patient and drop rocks that aren’t at the bottom of a gravity well, you don’t even need the railgun.

      • James Pollock

        I believe “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was the first to suggest that throwing rocks from the moon to the Earth might be a successful tactic (given tactical surprise). However, Doc Smith had Arisia and the Lensmen throw whole planets at enemy planets.

        “Realistically”, throwing rocks from anywhere BUT the moon is not going to be very effective. If you’re in, say, the Asteroid belt, you’re going to have to wait years, probably decades, for your thrown stones to hit… and your target has time to round up Bruce Willis and shoot him into space to thwart your evil plan. Get any closer than the asteroids, that there really aren’t any rocks to throw. (Space is mostly, well, you know.)

      • This is getting afield of the legal discussion, but considering the devastation it’s probably better to consider mass driver weapons to be strategic weapons. The poor precision and sheer destruction mean that they aren’t much use for anything short of total war. Of course if one was developed it would probably lead to a good deal of treaties and careful control over outer space companies.

      • James: You’re right about the rocks, but there’s always crowbars. Those don’t have to be that big. They won’t wipe out cities, but they can create a hell of a mess.

      • James Pollock

        Crowbars aren’t going to make it through Earth’s natural meteor defense system. The number of items that have dropped from LEO and landed on the surface with any mass remaining is fairly low.

        It’s true that any sizable mass, in space, is a potential terror weapon because of the huge potential energy it contains at the top of a gravity well, but down at the bottom of the well the launch vehicle has a pretty substantial potential energy, as well, as you need considerable energy to lift an object out of the well, and, at present, all of the systems that can do so require that energy to be stored in the launch vehicle.

        Now, you could go out to the asteroid belt, pick out a fair sized rock, say 10km in diameter and fling it at Earth. You could also go visit Jupiter’s vicinity, or it’s L4 or L5 points to find some accumulated mass (the latter would require that you pry it loose from Jupiter’s grip, of course) The energy required to move a mass that big is a fairly substantial amount… it’s not something you’re going to do without a lot of planning.

        The legal aspects are fairly trivial, and it’s handled quite adequately (and intuitively) by existing law… attempted murder is attempted murder, and negligence is negligence. We (Americans) routinely trust the operation of a two-ton killing machine to nearly every adult in the country… yes, there are some people who misuse that, with tragic consequences to innocents, but the law handles it as and when it happens.

        A fully-laden container ship has a lot of mass that could do a lot of damage to a harbor if used maliciously… but that doesn’t happen because A) it’s owner has a fairly strong incentive NOT to ram the docks, or other shipping, and B) pretty much every sizable harbor has a force of individuals who could be called upon to re-seize a ship that was taken by people other than the owners who DID have a reason to ram the docks or other shipping. (Oil and gas tankers present a different problem. Discuss.)

      • Depending on what’s being mined a ‘rock’ could be pretty big and dense enough to survive entering the atmosphere. Even if we aren’t worrying about that there’s the as-yet unresolved issue of orbit. The little Chinese show of blowing up an old satellite a few years back was ill-advised and based more on saber-rattling than common sense, but it was just the extension of poor policy-making around the world. We are getting close to the point where you can’t safely send shuttles and satellites up and mining could make it worse.
        Even if mining in far outer space wouldn’t be likely to send rocks into Earth’s orbit, what about mining structures around those asteroids or planets? A poor conversion of inches to centimeters and you’ve got rocks moving many times faster than bullets and tearing holes through hundred-billion dollar storage facilities.
        Lastly, even if currently terrorists simply don’t have the technical knowledge to use nuclear missiles, there’s no guarantee that they will remain uninformed in the future. Forty years ago North Korea had no ability to make a nuclear weapon, today they threaten all of South Korea with them.

        There are so many financial and security threats involved that strong regulation would be a necessity.

      • Dropping a rock on Earth from the Moon would be feasible, assuming that the infrastructure was on the Moon to do so, you didn’t care about accuracy (at that range hitting Earth is easy, but good luck hitting even a particular country), and you could withstand the retaliation (by the time we could send that kind of material to the moon, sending an ICBM should be fairly easy).
        Dropping a rock from LEO is a bigger problem – whatever the energy of the projectile you are dropping, you had to spend several times that amount of energy to get it up there in the first place. So whatever power you get out of it would be easier to do by just crashing the rocket.

      • James Pollock

        “Depending on what’s being mined a ‘rock’ could be pretty big and dense enough to survive entering the atmosphere.”

        Absolutely a rock can be dense enough to fall through the atmosphere. This is a well-known phenomenon. But there aren’t any of those sizable rocks close to Earth at present, except for the ISS and the many, many rocks currently sitting at the bottom of the lunar gravity well. Rocks made great weapons in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” because A) the tactic was unanticipated, B) there was a pre-existing delivery/launch method available which was co-opted by the rebel forces, and C) rocks are plentiful down at the bottom of the lunar gravity well.
        Rocks delivered from further away (where rocks NOT presently deep in a gravity well may be found) would take literally years to arrive, leaving us time to get Bruce Willis up there to sing Aerosmith tunes and destroy the rock, or at least break it up into tiny little burn-up-in-atmosphere sized rocks.
        Arthur C. Clarke hypothesized a rock that was big AND hit a city in the prologue to “Rendezvous with Rama”. If we take up his “Project Spacewatch” for the reasons Clarke suggested it would be necessary, it would have the advantage of cutting down on the effectiveness of terrorists (or just disagreeable folks) from throwing rocks down the gravity well on purpose. Which isn’t to say they won’t drop rocks on, say, Jupiter, but it isn’t as dangerous as, say, allowing nearly every American adult to operate a poison-spewing death machine at highway speed, even if we could get them all to let their sober friend drive and to put on their seatbelts.

        “We are getting close to the point where you can’t safely send shuttles and satellites up and mining could make it worse.”
        Well, we had two fatal shuttle accidents, and neither one involved a collision with an object already in space. There’s a lot of junk flying around up there, but there’s a lot of space in space.

        “A poor conversion of inches to centimeters and you’ve got rocks moving many times faster than bullets and tearing holes through hundred-billion dollar storage facilities.”
        Evolution in action. Careless people won’t be in space very long, one way or another. (Of course, people don’t drive spacecraft the way they drive cars, and probably never will. Heck, by the time space travel gets that common, people probably won’t drive cars the way we do now. We’ve already got self-parking, obstacle-avoiding, GPS-guided computer-assisted driving for some…)
        Lastly, even if currently terrorists simply don’t have the technical knowledge to use nuclear missiles, there’s no guarantee that they will remain uninformed in the future. Forty years ago North Korea had no ability to make a nuclear weapon, today they threaten all of South Korea with them.

        “There are so many financial and security threats involved that strong regulation would be a necessity.”
        Every single driver is required to be licensed by the state, to carry insurance, and, in many states, to have their vehicles physically inspected… and thousands are killed anyway.

  3. Out of curiosity, did you happen to look over the “in-universe” website? Some interesting hidden gems in the various pages, particularly the corporate history with regard to patents and legal maneuvers and the investment-promotion self-profile.

  4. One other question: how’d you reach the “LV-223 = moon orbiting unidentified planet in Gliese 86 system” conclusion?

  5. Just as a helpful guide, prices about double every 23 years at 3% inflation. The 1 trillion dollar program in 2012 dollars would be ~100b assuming 3% inflation and less assuming higher inflation. Still a ton of money, but Apple could just about fund it.

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