Ep. 671: The Consequences to Breaking Space Laws

Last week we talked about the laws that govern space exploration. This week the rubber hits the road. What are the consequences for actually breaking these rules? Are they really going to stop anyone?

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Show Notes

The Dark Side Of The Moon (Pink Floyd)

Universe Today (Patreon)

CosmoQuestX (Patreon)

Astronomy Cast (Patreon)

50 years ago, Apollo 13’s Jack Swigert flew to the moon, but forgot something big. Taxes. (Space.com)

New York Times: Astronaut accessed estranged spouse’s bank account in possible first criminal allegation from space (CNN)

Soyuz rocket launches with demo satellite for Russian internet constellation (Spaceflight Now)

In 1978, a Soviet satellite exploded over traditional Dené land. Its effects are still felt today (CBC)

Federal Aviation Administration

Federal Communications Commission


SpaceX crashes another Starship in test that was delayed over FAA concerns company violated its test license in December (The Washington Post)

SpaceBEE 1, 2, 3, 4 (Gunter’s Space Page)

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (ISRO)

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)

Space Force

This week’s destroyed Russian satellite created even more dangerous space debris (Popular Science)

Planetary Resources (Wikipedia)

Hayabusa2 Fires an Anti-Tank Warhead at Asteroid Ryugu (Universe Today)

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (Goodreads)

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Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 671: The Consequences to Breaking Space Laws. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly fact-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me as always is Dr Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?

Dr. Pamela Gay: I am doing well. Happy Dark Side of the Moon, Fraser.

Fraser: What? I don’t understand.

Pamela: It’s the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” coming out and having a sciency cover and a sciency name that have absolutely nothing to do with each other or the contents of the album.

Fraser: And is gibberish anyway because there’s no dark side of the Moon.

Pamela: Yes. It’s true. It’s all true. All of it.

Fraser: So I’ve got something kind of serious to talk about that I just want to. So like normally, I don’t beg for money, but I’m going to today, and that is because the advertising market has cratered over the last year so ad revenue on University Today is down 68 percent since what it was this time last year while the traffic remains roughly the same. And this is, you know, we’ve seen all these layoffs at all the big tech companies. There is a fairly significant restructuring going on in the market, and so you know, if it wasn’t for the patrons, I would be starting to lay off people at Universe Today, but thanks to the patrons, I don’t have to. I’ve been able to sort of keep going forward. I’m assuming we’ll get through this and that things will change and recover, but it also just gives me so much hope that I can shift from having to worry about what the advertising market is going to be doing and always be sort of concerned to this place where I have thousands of individual bosses, each of which are supporting us. So if you’ve been listening to Astronomy Cast and you want to support the work that we do here, definitely join our Patreon. But also if you want to support the work that Pamela and I do independently of that, you can support our individual Patreons as well. And, you know, normally it’s a nice-to-have but definitely things have gotten tight, and I couldn’t do this without the patrons. And if you want to support independent space journalism please, join our Patreon. So mine is patreon.com slash Universe Today. Yours is what? CosmoQuest?

Pamela: Yeah, CosmoQuestX.

Fraser: Right, and then there’s the one for Astronomy Cast to support the salaries of the people who work on this website, so yeah, if you want to sort of cover all your bases, support all three. And any amount; doesn’t matter, but it’s really helpful. All right. Enough of that out of the way. Let’s get on to this week’s episode. Now last week, we talked about the laws that govern space exploration. This week, the rubber hits the road. What are the consequences for actually breaking these rules? Are they really going to stop anyone? All right. Now, you’ve queued up a bunch of light-hearted stories about people breaking space laws, so…

Pamela: It’s…

Fraser: I didn’t even think, you know, like, I didn’t know of anybody deploying nuclear weapons in space, and apparently, these are not the laws that have been broken. They are a little more down to Earth, pardon the pun. 

Pamela: Right.

Fraser: So let’s talk about some of these.

Pamela: So one of the more interesting rules is if you break the law in space for your own nation, what the heck happens? And if you just in general break the International Space Treaty in space, what happens? And it turns out your own country is responsible for you, and there have been two fascinating cases, one involving U.S. tax law and the other involving banking.

Fraser: Breaking bank laws from space?

Pamela: It happens! It happens. So Jack Swigert, back in 1970, was a last-minute replacement on an Apollo mission, and so this was Apollo 13. so this mission was bad from all sides of the mission, but before it went bad in the ways we normally talk about, Jack had this realization that he left for space without filing his U.S. taxes. And as the story goes, he asked Mission Control, “Have you guys completed your income tax?” And there was laughter, and there was a fair bit of asking the IRS for forgiveness and an extension because being in outer space happened.

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: Being in outer space happened, so it really doesn’t get any more lighthearted than that. The law was broken, no consequences were found, everyone moved on with the situation.

Fraser: Now I don’t know how it works in the U.S., but here in Canada, if you fail to file your taxes on time, you get assessed a penalty.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: So you’re not going to jail; you just have to pay a penalty, interest for the late filing, and increasingly insistent letters from the government, but I can imagine in the case of an astronaut, who may be stuck up in space…

Pamela: You don’t want a felony charge.

Fraser: Well, it’s not a felony, right? It’s a fine.

Pamela: It’s a it depends on how bad you do it.

Fraser: Well, sure. Yeah. I guess, you know, if not only did he late file but also was embezzling and laundering money then and, you know, misreporting his taxes, then, yeah. Perhaps he would be in a lot more trouble. But in this case, I guess he was lucky he was able to talk away from having to do the fine and paying interest, which is funny.

Pamela: Right, right. He just got an extension. So less lighthearted and potentially could have had much higher consequences, there was a NASA astronaut, Anna McLean, who back in 2019 from the International Space Station was accessing bank accounts. It’s what we do on the internet, that and other things. The only thing was she was accessing bank accounts that were the bank accounts of her ex-wife, and that in general is not something one should be doing, and there were complaints filed, and again no penalty was assessed, but these are cases of individual people breaking specific laws, investigations being done, and it’s fairly cut and dry. If you break a law, you ask for forgiveness, and sometimes it happens. But these weren’t space laws being broken.

Fraser: Right, These are Earth laws being broken. 

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: All right, so have space laws been broken?

Pamela: Yes, all the time.

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: The most common one as near as I can tell is satellites launching and using entirely the wrong frequency, using an unregistered frequency, using a frequency that’s just plain not supposed to be used. The most recent example of this is Skif-D, which launched back in October. It was the fourth mission deployed by a Russian launch, and it is supposed to be the prototype for an upcoming constellation of communication satellites, kind of the Russian version of Starlink. Initially, they couldn’t find Skif-D. It just sometimes… it’s hard to find things right after they get deployed, but the kinds of people that go out looking for satellites were able to discover that on the orbit that Russia had registered with the UN, there was a mission transmitting in the FM at a frequency that was not the ones Skif-D was supposed to be using. And it appears that that is indeed Skif-D. The Doppler shifting of the signal matches, the orbit of the signal matches, and my dogs are just as upset about this as I am. So this is something that happens. We saw with the Iridium satellites. They were transmitting back in the early 90s at a frequency very different from what was expected, and they were actually impacting radio astronomy. But it’s up to your own nation to do something, and I don’t think Russia is interested in doing anything to Skif-D.

Fraser: Right. Right. Well, I mean, if we’ve seen our experience with them in the past, sort of another example, and like, you know, we talked about in the Outer Space Treaty that a big part of the treaty is all about not putting nuclear weapons in space. But several times, rockets or satellites equipped with fission reactors have gone to space – the same kinds of fission reactors that you would see on submarines, aircraft carriers, things like that – and so one of the more famous examples is the Kosmos 954 satellite which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1977. They actually ended up launching almost two dozen of these reconnaissance satellites with fission reactors on board. The U.S. has also launched one as a test into space, and so these things are still out there. Like is that a nuclear weapon in space? Not exactly.

Pamela: But it’s kind of a dirty weapon if you make it into one.

Fraser: Yeah, I guess so, and so we see some consequences because Kosmos 954 failed, re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, and sprayed radioactive debris across a chunk of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Oh, sorry, Northwest Territory… in Canada’s Northwest Territory, near… some of the debris fell into the Great Slave Lake and other material fairly close to some towns in the Northwest Territories here in Canada. And so there’s a giant chunk of the Northwest Territories which is a bit of an exclusion zone that there are warning signs if you try to go into that region. And Canada sent a bill – a cleanup bill to Russia – for six million dollars and is still waiting on full compensation to pay back for all of the cleanup effort that happened back in the 1970s. So you think that that’s the kind of thing that the Outer Space Treaty would attempt to deal with, and you can see that it doesn’t really have any teeth.

Pamela: And this is the problem with a lot of international treaties, by which I mean all international treaties.

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: The only real penalties are you can be sanctioned, you can have your toys taken away, and you can have tariffs and other such penalties to commerce inflicted upon you but in general, there seems to be a desire to put keeping things moving forward ahead of punishing organizations and people for things that have already happened. SpaceX has actually inadvertently become a really good example of this. I would say quite purposefully became a good example of this actually. The FAA denied them license to launch SN9, one of their Starship prototypes that they flew to 41,000 feet, and it came back, and it exploded in a fiery mess when it got to the ground. And SpaceX was basically able to say, “My bad. We won’t do it again.” 

Fraser: Right. Sorry, turtles.

Pamela: Yeah. Yeah.

Fraser: So I guess there’s another example that happened relatively recently. Did you see this story about an American company that I guess figured out a workaround to U.S. telecommunications law by launching out of India?

Pamela: Yeah, so this is one of those problems of if your missions are tiny, the FCC and the FAA aren’t entirely sure they can be well-tracked. Once they’re in orbit and they’re giving off radio emissions, it’s the FCC’s problem, and in this case, there were what’s called SpaceBEEs 1, 2, 3, 4 that were meant to test out a company’s swarm idea for a space-based Internet of Things technology. And FCC was like nope, we’re not going to give you a license for that, and a U.S. launch provider is generally not going to launch things that the FCC has failed to license. But India said sure, and these four little SpaceBEEs went up with the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and deployed, and the problem that FCC articulated is these are tiny. And when I say tiny, this is actually an exaggeration. They’re like four inches (10 centimeters) cubes, and while it’s possible to see things that size from the ground if they’re shiny enough, you can only see them when they’re in sunlight because sunlight… they don’t exactly give off their own light. These things are in low earth orbit, which means they’re largely in the Earth’s shadow, and if you don’t get a quick orbital conformation on them after they’re deployed, they’re going to wander off to whatever orbit they feel like before you figure out where they are. And being able to see something that’s 10 centimeters in size – four inches in size – and being able to initially find it easily are not the same thing. And so FCC was very legitimately concerned that once these things got up there, we wouldn’t be able to confirm their position; we wouldn’t be able to confirm their orbits. NORAD and the U.S. Space Force are out there updating orbits one to four times a day depending on what the mission is, and you can’t update the orbit for something you haven’t initially found, which means these little SpaceBEEs could not just sting other satellites but collide violently into them. And if the trajectories are perpendicular to one another or just at different enough velocities, this could create debris clouds, and debris clouds are a bit problematic.

Fraser: Right. And so speaking of debris clouds, let’s talk about something that I don’t think it’s covered in the Outer Space Treaty. It is clearly a problem, and this is anti-satellite weapons.

Pamela: And this is one of those things where… does it get covered by the “you’re not supposed to commit war in space”? Does it get covered by the “you’re responsible for damage done to other rockets”? That one seems to be a clear-cut if you do something that damages somebody else’s rockets, you hold liability. But back in November 2021, Russia – we’re apparently going to keep returning to Russia – decided they wanted to test an anti-satellite weapon, and they weren’t the first nation to do this. We can only hope they are the last nation to do this. The U.S. is guilty of this as well.

Fraser: Yep. U.S., China, and India have all tested anti-satellite weapons at this point. And Russia.

Pamela: And the spacecraft that Russia took out – Kosmos 1408 – they have a lot of things named Kosmos. Kosmos 1408, it was a defunct satellite no longer in use, no longer usable, and in a low earth orbit that caused the debris to actually intersect the orbit of the International Space Station. The ISS had to maneuver when the anti-satellite weapons test first occurred; they actually sent the astronauts scrambling into the greater protection of the attached capsules. It was kind of and it kind of remains a hot mess because there’s this cloud of debris, and it starts to raise a question of just how small can we detect. And the smallest of particles can still cause great damage.

Fraser: And ironically, the Russians destroyed a satellite that has sent debris that has the potential to risk cosmonauts on the International Space Station.

Pamela: Yeah, yeah.

Fraser: Right? What were they thinking?

Pamela: I don’t know anymore. I just…

Fraser: And so at this point, the U.S. has vowed to never do any more anti-satellite tests, and they’re trying to get other nations to agree.

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: And so this is a law that is in process right now and hopefully, we will see an international agreement banning satellite tests because obviously, nobody needs more space junk, and they’ve demonstrated that this works, I guess. Congratulations. Now there are people – eccentric billionaires – who are planning to send vast numbers of human beings to red planets in our vicinity, and what are the consequences of that? How does that interact with space law?

Pamela: So in theory…

Fraser: In theory.

Pamela: In theory, Mars, the Moon, asteroids… they can’t be claimed by any one nation for sole usage. 

Fraser: Or eccentric billionaire who is the resident of a nation.

Pamela: Right, and has multiple citizenships.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: So the question becomes at what point does it count as claiming something? There are companies that I really adore – Planetary Resources is one of them – that are looking to figure out how do you go out and grab a space rock and use it for fun science and profit. 

Fraser: Hmm. Except when you go bankrupt and are acquired by a cryptocurrency company? Anyway.

Pamela: It’s all quite sad. 

Fraser: There’s no better way to lose money than to create an asteroid mining company.

Pamela: That is currently true.

Fraser: I can’t think of one.

Pamela: That is currently true, yes. Anyways. So not a lot of people are really argumentative about yeah if you go out and grab a small rock 500 meters across or something, just don’t harm anyone. I mean Japan literally bombed the bejesus with tiny robots out of a medium-sized asteroid.

Fraser: And an anti-tank weapon.

Pamela: And an anti-tank weapon. But where it becomes more questionable is when you start creating a company town on Mars, and one of the ideas that we’re seeing floated around is people will be able to go to Mars contingent on them agreeing to essentially pay off their debts through work. And I don’t know if other countries had company towns… we actually… Edwardsville used to have mining, and there’s an entire section of our town that was built and designed by a “benevolent” company town where people could go to the store that was owned by the coal mine and do their shopping there and it would be taken from their wages directly.

Fraser: Right, you pay in the company script, and yeah. Like how could this go wrong?

Pamela: And so here you have to worry about human rights violations. You have to worry about slavery. You have to worry about just where are the boundaries in the rules. And on top of it, who enforces the rules? What nation does it belong to? Especially if we start having missions that are launching from international waters because one of the parts that is not spoken really is the people who are enforcing the Outer Space Treaty are supposed to be the nations launching the stuff, and if it’s not so much a nation that’s launching the stuff, what do you do?

Fraser: So I guess if we were to put our lawyer hats on and examine Elon Musk and SpaceX’s plans to build a city on Mars.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: It would be treated as a research station under the current law, and the way the rules are, anyone can use it.

Pamela: Yeah, but if he controls the only means for getting there…

Fraser: No, no, no. This is just like if you were to sit down and say what does the Outer Space Treaty say today that effectively anything that SpaceX will be building on Mars is a research station. It has to be a research station. You can’t build anything but research stations out in space, and the rules are that you can’t prevent other people from using your research station, you have to provide aid and assistance, you have to share your resources with people who make it to your station, and you can use parts of your environment to keep your station going but there’s no kind of rules about harvesting resources at scale, profiting off them, etc., right?

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: And that any consequences for violating law would fall onto SpaceX as a company that operates in the United States, and in theory, other nations if they have a problem with what SpaceX is doing will put the boots to the U.S. to make them enforce those laws to rein back what they’re doing. But there is this saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law, so if SpaceX flies to Mars and just starts building a city, what can anyone do to stop them? If you can’t stop them, then you can’t do anything.

Pamela: And the thing that I feel like we just have to remember is we live in this weird world that is transitioning into companies are as powerful as nations and their headquarters can float from country to country based on who gives them the greatest freedoms, the greatest tax breaks. We see large amounts of Facebook stuff and things is out of Ireland because that was beneficial. So it is easy to start to imagine a future where we’ve already heard Musk talking about if he couldn’t get the clearances he needed to launch from Texas or Florida, he’d launch from a reconstructed oil rig platform.

Fraser: In international waters.

Pamela: In international waters. So we can start to move to the future of the billionaire in the ocean in international waters launching to another world and laying claims to a part of the territory.

Fraser: Yeah, so I think, you know, people are worried that Elon Musk and SpaceX are going to be able to just build a giant city on Mars and no one’s going to be able to stop them. I mean, I think that’s ridiculous.

Pamela: Giant city is a bit hard. No, that’s not going to happen.

Fraser: Yeah, you imagine the flows of material that would need to come together to support the creation and maintenance of a giant city, and every nation that is involved in the construction, supply, resourcing, profiting off of this would be under various versions of international law. And you would expect them to at some point decide that they’re going to say no.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: And so it would, like… if Musk or SpaceX or anybody, right? If Branson… who knows? Wants to do what they want without any kind of consequences at all, they have to not be on Earth and be outside of the interaction of planet Earth, and that’s impossible. You’ve got to interact with Earth if you’re going to try to do anything in space for the foreseeable future, and so I just can’t imagine a situation where anybody could do whatever they wanted in space and nobody on Earth would be able to to stop them. 

Pamela: This I agree with completely. Where my heart is slightly more bitter than my coffee is it feels like this is the kind of situation where you can imagine the equivalent of the old East India Trading Company sailing vessel with a couple of dozen people that are going to the New World, and those people are essentially indentured to the company until they work off their debts. And at that scale, I feel that we could see something happening that wouldn’t be catastrophic to the Red Planet, wouldn’t be at scale, but would still be kind of a human rights violation. And I’m not a fan of those.

Fraser: Yeah, but a human rights violation is the kind of thing that is battled here on Earth, and so lawyers will have a problem with this.

Pamela: And lost all the time.

Fraser: Possibly. But lawyers would be concerned with this, and there would be court cases and there would be requirements set up. So as long as Mars needs a lifeline from Earth, and it’s going to need one for decades if not hundreds of years, the way you enforce what happens on Mars is you put laws here on Earth. And so I think, you know, right now the Outer Space Treaty falls well short of what we would need to be able to properly enforce our sci-fi vision of using the solar system. The laws need to catch up.

Pamela: The Star Trek sci-fi vision. There’s plenty of sci-fi visions that go the other direction. I think it’s time for a reread of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. I think we’re reaching that point.

Fraser: Yeah, I don’t think. I think, you know, seeing that attempting to run an asteroid mining company is a way to lose a lot of money, we are a long way away from anybody being able to have the leverage to be independent in space, and so it’s gonna unfold in slow motion. And the laws, in this case, I feel confident we will be able to stay ahead of our expansion into the solar system. And I think the hope is that we continue to use the Antarctica Treaty…

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: And the Outer Space Treaty as a model for how to share this resource and try to minimize the tragedy of the commons that always seems to happen.

Pamela: I hope we have your future.

Fraser: All right. We’ll find out together.

Pamela: It’s true.

Fraser. All right. Thanks, Pamela.

Pamela: Thank you, Fraser, and thank you so much to all the folks out there who are helping to make this show possible. As Fraser mentioned at the beginning of the episode we are here not just with Astronomy Cast but with everything that is done at Universe Today and is done at CosmoQuest thanks to the generous support of so many patrons. And this week I would like to thank a segment of our Astronomy Cast patrons: David Gates, Phillip Walker, Jim Schooler, Claudia Mastroianni, Matthew Horstman, Alex Cohen, Kseniya Panfilenko, Scott Kohn, Disasterina, Matthias Heyden, Justin Proctor, Tim Gerrish, Gregory Singleton, Kenneth Ryan, Jeff Willson, Tim McMackin, Cooper, Don Mundis, Paul D Disney, Omar Del Rivero, Eran Segev, Benjamin Mueller, Dean McDaniel, NinjaNick, Micheal Regan, Scott Briggs, Michelle Cullen, J. AlexAnderson, Benjamin Carryer, Matt Rucker, Anitusar, Veronica_Cure, Peter, Bruce Amazeen, Father Prax, Jim McGihon, Mark Steven Rasnake, Frode Tennebø, Abraham Cottrill, Philip Grand, Brent Kreinop, schercm, Dwight Illk. Thank you, all of you, so very much for everything you do to make our shows possible.

Fraser: Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you next week.

Pamela: Bye-bye.

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