Mazaalai, the first Mongolian satellite

Let’s have a look at Mazaalai, the first Mongolian satellite. Mazaalai, named after the endangered (and native to Mongolia) Gobi bear, is the first Mongolian satellite; the CubeSat, designed and built by three young researchers of the National University of Mongolia, the oldest university in Mongolia (established in 1942), in Ulaanbaatar, was launched into outer space on a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as part of the SpaceX CRS-11 mission in June 2017. The satellite, which transmits the national anthem of Mongolia to Earth, travels around the Earth every ninety-two minutes at a velocity of almost eight kilometres per second.

The main purpose of the project, supported by UNESCO and Japan, is for Mongolia to develop more accurate maps, help mitigate natural disasters, and conduct independent space studies. Mongolia can contact the satellite five to six times a day and the satellite communicates with seven ground stations: one in each of the countries participating in the Birds-1 program (Mongolia, Japan, Ghana, Nigeria, and Bangladesh), and one each in Thailand and Taiwan.

The satellite

Mazaalai, the first Mongolian 1-kilogram satellite, is a CubeSat designed and built by Mongolians D. Erdenebaatar, D. Amartuvshin and T. Turtogtokh. A CubeSat is a type of miniaturized satellite (sometimes referred to as “smallsats”, satellites of low mass and size, usually under five hundred kilograms, built to reduce the large economic cost of launch vehicles and the costs associated with construction; different classifications are used to categorize them based on mass) for space research that is made up of multiples of 10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm cubic units. CubeSats, which have a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms per unit and often use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for their electronics and structure, are commonly deployed in LEO from the International Space Station (ISS) or launched as secondary payloads on a launch vehicle. More than a thousand CubeSats have been launched as of January 2019; less than a hundred only have been destroyed in launch failures.

Released from the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer on the Kibō module of the International Space Station in July 2017, Mazaalai has imaging capabilities and can transmit songs back to Earth; its primary mission involves performing experiments including GPS location, air density measurement, and investigation of cosmic radiation. Mazaalai is part of the Birds-1 constellation of satellites, built through the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Satellite at Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology, a program intended to help universities in non-spacefaring countries get satellites into outer space. Birds-1 is the first iteration of a multinational program called the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Satellite project – BIRDS – helping countries build their first satellite. Over a two-year period, three university students from each of the five participating countries (Mongolia, Japan, Ghana, Nigeria, and Bangladesh) learned skills to build, develop, launch and operate satellites. All five satellites developed thanks to the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Satellite project were identical to each other.

The MongolSat-1 satellite, sometimes reported as Mongolia’s first satellite, launched in April 2017, was in fact launched by a Bermuda-based company, ABS. ABS, formerly Asia Broadcast Satellite, originally founded in 1996, is a global satellite operator based in Hong Kong and officially incorporated in Bermuda. Its services include direct-to-home and satellite-to-cable TV distribution, cellular services, and Internet services. The MongolSat-1 satellite was manufactured by the U.S. company Boeing and was co-branded as MongolSat-1 after launch. On ABS’s website, we read that “MongolSat-1 represents the country of Mongolia’s first co-branded satellite payload in its history. The 12×27 MHz channel satellite capacity of MongolSat-1 will be used exclusively to launch a free nationwide digital satellite TV service, telecommunications and broadband services. The new services will be available throughout the vast geography of Mongolia”.

SpaceX CRS-11

SpaceX CRS-11, also known as SpX-11, was a Commercial Resupply Service mission to the International Space Station, launched successfully on June 3, 2017. The mission, contracted by NASA, was flown by the American private company SpaceX. The mission utilized a Falcon 9 launch vehicle, a two-stage-to-orbit medium lift launch vehicle designed and manufactured by SpaceX in the United States of America, and was the first reuse of C106, a CRS Dragon (a reusable cargo spacecraft) cargo vessel. SpaceX CRS-11 was the penultimate of the first twelve missions awarded to SpaceX under the Commercial Resupply Services contract to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) are a series of contracts awarded by NASA from 2008 to 2016 for delivery of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) on commercially operated spacecraft. SpaceX began flying resupply missions in 2012, using Dragon cargo spacecraft launched on Falcon 9 rockets from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Orbital Sciences began deliveries in 2013 using Cygnus spacecraft launched on the Antares rocket from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wallops Island, Virginia. A second phase of contracts were solicited and proposed in 2014. They were awarded in January 2016 to Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX, for cargo transport flights beginning in 2019 and expected to last through 2024.

Mazaalai, the first Mongolian satellite’s legal status

What was Mazaalai’s legal status? What was the first Mongolian satellite’s legal status? The term “space object” is important in Space Law and Public International Law. This notion will become of more practical importance with the expansion of space activities (International Space Station, space tourism, Moon, Mars…). Is a satellite a space object?

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

Of course, because of orbital decay, those satellites no bigger than a shoe box won’t return to Earth. They will disintegrate after a few years because of Earth’s atmosphere. Article VII of the OST declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”. As a conclusion, we can affirm that satellites are space objects and therefore, so is Mazaalai, the first Mongolian satellite.

Concluding remarks on Mazaalai, the first Mongolian satellite

What’s interesting with the Mongolian Mazaalai satellite is that it was released from the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer on the Kibō module of the International Space Station. The International Space Station (ISS) was designed to be used as both a microgravity laboratory, as well as a launch pad for Low Earth Orbit services. Who then becomes internationally liable in case of damages caused by a space object launched/released from the ISS? The ISS? Japan? The United States of America? Mongolia? This question will be the subject of a new article that will soon be published on Space Legal Issues.