Summer 2018 Part Two: Space Law and Space Lasers

Last week, I talked about the first half of my summer and my internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Now I’m going to talk about the second half of my summer and my internship at Analytical Space, Inc. First, though, I’m going to back up and tell you about space law.

 

Since my post a few months ago about why I want to go into space law, a lot of you have asked me what exactly space law is. Lucky for you, I was expecting this response, and I did in fact promise a post about this. So here is my quick and dirty—dare I say nebulous?—explanation of space law. (All space puns are 100% intended.)

 

When I say space law is nebulous, I mean two things. One, it’s kind of fuzzy. And two, it is still very much in its infancy.

 

Quick astronomy lesson for you: A nebula is a cloud of dust and gas surrounding a baby star.

 

A baby star like this little guy! Picture shows Neutron as a puppy sitting in front of a white and blue background. He is all head and paws.

 

Sorry, there was a picture of me and Neutron Star, and this picture of baby Neutron, in Seeing Eye’s quarterly magazine, and I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

 

But seriously, nebulae are nurseries for stars and solar systems. A nebula is a vast cloud of interstellar dust, hydrogen, helium, and other ionized gases. The gas, dust, and other matter in the nebula clump together, gravity starts to do its thing, there’s some spinning action, and eventually the clump becomes dense enough to form stars. The remaining material, through a process called accretion, forms planets and other objects. This is how our own solar system and our own planet were formed. Cool, right?

 

So space law is nebulous in every sense of the word. It is fuzzy and confusing, and there’s no simple way to define it, but that’s because it is still being formed. Space law has been around since the USSR launched Sputnik in the 1950s, but as far as legal fields go, space law is pretty young.

 

Okay, you say, but what is it? The oversimplified answer is space law is the legal framework for anything to do with outer space. That legal framework is being built as we speak. I’ve heard that within ten years, space law is going to be the next big thing in the legal world. Which is why I’m trying to get aboard this rocketship now.

 

The way I understand it, space law is happening in multiple orbits in the U.S. First, there are the international treaties and agreements that govern what nations can do in outer space. Then, there are the federal agencies, like NASA, which are doing things in outer space. There are the federal agencies like NOAA, FAA, FCC, and the Department of State, which are creating regulations for what can be done in outer space. And finally there are all those new commercial space companies (you know, the ones sending cars to Mars). This is obviously not a complete picture, but it’s a basic outline.

 

There are five international treaties and a slew of memoranda of understanding between countries which make up the international law governing outer space. The gist of these international agreements is that outer space cannot be claimed by any one country, and space is only to be used for peaceful purposes. There are also agreements on rescuing astronauts, liability for damages caused by objects launched into outer space, and of course agreements governing the international space station.

 

On the domestic level, there are a whole bunch of federal agencies doing work in space. There’s NASA, of course, which runs the U.S. space program. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates weather satellites. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates launch vehicles, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates radio frequency spectrum use (I’ll explain that more in a minute). There are more—Department of State, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, NIST, and more.

 

Finally, there are all the private space companies, which are doing everything from sending cars to Mars and launching inflatable modules for the International Space Station, to operating weather, GPS, and safety system satellites and conducting experiments on new medicines in microgravity. There is a lot of really cool stuff happening up in space, guys. The private space industry is growing very quickly, and this is one of the big reasons space law is growing so much as a field. The growing private space industry raises a lot of questions that will need to be answered. For example, no one can own bodies in space (like the moon or Mars or asteroids), but what about resources that could be extracted from asteroids by asteroid mining companies? And, on a simpler note, all these new space companies will need lawyers to do regular lawyerly things like drafting contracts and negotiating agreements and litigating disputes and such.

 

At the end of June, I left NIST and returned to Cambridge. I moved back into my apartment, returned to my habit of buying ice cream in Harvard Square every day (only kidding, I got myself down to once a week), and started my second internship at Analytical Space. Analytical Space is a small startup in Cambridge building an in-space data relay service using satellites about the size of shoeboxes. Basically, everybody has satellites up in space, but it’s really hard for these satellites to get data down to the ground, because as you all know, 70% of the world is water, and as you probably don’t know (because I didn’t) satellites need to connect to a specific ground terminal to get their data down to Earth. So Analytical Space is planning to put a bunch of satellites up in space to act like cell towers and connect other satellites with the ground much faster. And my favorite part, they’re using lasers to do it. I repeat: space lasers.

 

Right after I got here, our first satellite was deployed from the International Space Station, and we’ve been testing everything and getting ready for tests with customers. I’ve been helping with the regulatory side of that, which mainly means working with the FCC regulations. Which brings me back to the spectrum regulations I mentioned earlier.

 

Think back to high school science class and the electromagnetic spectrum, radio waves to gamma rays and all that stuff in between, including the rainbow. All communications take place on the electromagnetic spectrum. The FCC regulates how the spectrum is used and makes sure that no one is interfering with anyone else. This is why radio stations broadcast at different frequencies. Basically, the FCC is trying to minimize those awkward spots where you’re hearing two radio stations at once, except they’re not just doing it for radio stations. They’re doing it for satellites too. This is a very simplified version of what’s going on, but it’s the general idea. For the past two months, I’ve been learning how all this works, getting everything ready to get FCC approval for our beta tests, and drafting comments on the FCC’s proposed regulations for small satellites.

 

Apart from spending the last two months being thoroughly amazed and getting to geek out about cool space things, I’ve really enjoyed getting experience at a startup and seeing how the private space industry works. The people are all a lot of fun too. We had a big party to celebrate our first satellite’s deployment, and the interns had a Dungeons and Dragons night, and it’s been a really great experience on the whole. I’m going to be continuing part time at Analytical Space through the fall semester, or until 3L eats me.

 

So that’s what I was up to for the second half of my summer. I’m going to go enjoy the last few days before I have to crack the law books again, but I’ll be back next week with my August reading roundup and to talk about how I overcame my writer’s block this summer.

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