The legality of artificial shooting stars

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let’s study the legality of artificial shooting stars. A satellite launched to create rains of shooting stars on order? A Japanese company launched on January 17, 2019 a satellite in outer space. It’s goal? Create rains of shooting stars on demand. The Japanese company Astro Live Experiences (ALE) today responds to an old dream: its founder, astrophysicist and entrepreneur Lena Okajima, claims to have found a way to trigger a shower of shooting stars to order. The first could be visible from Japan in 2020. Small particles will be dropped from a microsatellite and burn up as they fall to Earth.

The Tokyo-based space venture company which is led by its CEO and founder Lena Okajima, has recently announced that they will be launching their first satellite on January 17, 2019, after seven years of research and development. This satellite will take a ride on the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s Epsilon Rocket for the journey to space. ALE aims to realize the world’s first man made meteor with its own satellites”.

The Japanese space project

A shooting star is a common name for the visible part of small dust or rocks from space, as it travels through the Earth’s atmosphere while burning up, which gives it the commonly known name of “a shooting star”. If large enough, the meteoroid will fall to sea or land and be considered a meteorite.

If you are lucky, on a clear night sky you can see a meteor streaking across the sky. This streak of light is due space dust re-entering the atmosphere at high speeds, causing aerodynamic heating and emitting a glow of light that is observed on the ground at night. What we do is to artificially generate meteors by releasing a meteor particle from a satellite into the atmosphere”.

On the company’s website, we read that “Sky Canvas, the world’s first artificial shooting star project, aims to bring people all over the world together to witness an unprecedented, collective experience. Using space as our stage, we will constantly strive to bring to life new levels of entertainment. We will use our technical expertise and know-how to contribute to the development of science”.

The project, poetically named Sky Canvas, consists of putting into orbit two small satellites each containing between five hundred and one thousand round objects of small size (one to two centimetres in diameter). The idea is that these mini-satellites of sixty-five kilograms drop, on demand, these multi-coloured projectiles to our planet. In partnership with the JAXA, the company has also focused on the safety of the project, since the mission of this first satellite will be to “release objects from the satellite to generate meteorites”.

And this is where the magic of science operates: the heat and the speed of the fall will turn small objects into balls of fire of different colours. All while emitting more brightness than the “real” shooting stars. False ALE shooting stars should also, according to an employee of the company, “be observable for longer than natural meteorites, since heavier and slower”. The objectives of the project are multiple: “To study the feasibility of man-made meteorites, to obtain data on the upper atmosphere and to understand how atmospheric re-entry can affect and modify the trajectory of the object”.

The system has been going through a battery of tests over the last few years, including vibration tests in a vacuum chamber to simulate space. They’ve also released meteor particles in the same chamber to test the angle and velocity of how they are released. This launch and another scheduled for the summer represent the final stages in development before the first artificial meteor shower, which is scheduled to light up the skies above Hiroshima in spring 2020, where it will be visible by six million people spread across two hundred kilometres.

Why invest so much energy and money in such a project? First to entertain the Earthlings, the shooting stars of ALE can be visible on an area covering two hundred kilometres in diameter. The goal is, according to ALE, to “bring people from all over the world together in an unprecedented collective experience”. But the company also insists on the scientific scope of Sky Canvas: “By studying the trajectory of our artificial shooting stars, we hope to better understand the mechanics of shooting stars and natural meteorites”. The upper atmosphere where the meteor showers will burn has few means of observation today, and remains one of the least understood portions of the atmosphere; by studying how the particles they release move through this zone, ALE hopes to further scientific understanding: “This has potential applications in the safe disposal of space debris, for instance”.

The legality of artificial shooting stars

Let’s have a look at the legality of artificial shooting stars. There has been growing concern in recent years about the amount of junk and debris in orbit, with fears that shrapnel from old satellites could hamper rocket launches in future. Spewing out unspecified particles that could interfere with sensitive equipment feels slightly irresponsible. ALE has plans for more space entertainment projects in the future – and right now there’s nothing to stop anyone from launching as many satellites, electric cars or art installations into orbit as they want, for whatever reason. The New Space company says there are a number of safety checks that will take place before each launch to avoid any problems. The satellite will check the position and trajectory of other satellites, and has multiple redundant monitoring systems to make sure the particles are released in the right place and at the right speed.

There is no doubt that the Japanese start-up’s ambition will not fail to make debate. Starting with the obvious problems of light pollution. According to John Barentine, of the International Dark-Sky Association, It is a threat to the ability to do astronomical research from the ground. Each of these moving rays of light in the night sky could interfere with astronomers’ ability to collect photons from astronomical sources. Many satellites are already reflective, returning bursts of light visible for a few seconds to the Earth. The brightest of these satellites are Iridium, a real constellation of sixty-six telecommunication satellites put into orbit in the 1990s. For Harun Mehmedinović, light pollution has many effects on mental health, but also on plants and animals: “We have an inheritance and, I think, a long-standing relationship with the virgin night sky, which is important for us, as people”.

The risk of collisions is another source of concern. The more we increase the number of satellites – no matter how small – in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the more it will be necessary to manage the celestial traffic jams. It also raises the question of the accumulation of space debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Although extremely rare, such collisions have already occurred in the past. The first of them took out the small French military satellite Cerise (which main purpose was to intercept HF radio signals for French intelligence services), in 1992, whose antenna was cut by a space debris. We recall that on February 10, 2009 a wreck of Russian satellite struck an American operational communications satellite. Shock spread a lot of debris into the near-Earth space. Other satellites (four identified to date) have been destroyed this way in orbit. Space is becoming more and more crowded. More than twenty thousand objects in orbit are included in the official public catalogue updated by the US Air Force. Less than ten percent of these objects are active satellites, the remainder being dead satellites, old rocket bodies, and parts of spaceships.

On the legality of artificial shooting stars, concerning the access to orbits, near-Earth space is formed of different orbital layers. Terrestrial orbits are limited common resources and inherently repugnant to any appropriation: they are not property in the sense of law. Orbits and frequencies are res communis (a Latin term derived from Roman law that preceded today’s concepts of the commons and common heritage of mankind; it has relevance in international law and common law). It’s the first-come, first-served principle that applies to orbital positioning, which without any formal acquisition of sovereignty, records a promptness behaviour to which it grants an exclusive grabbing effect of the space concerned.

We recall that anything that launches into space has to be registered. The Registration Convention law is sort of like a vehicle registration for spacecraft. In addition to the model, age, and ownership details, you have to register your spacecraft’s orbital path, where you’re launching it from, and what it will be doing in space. Also, the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty (1967) states that outer space is free for exploitation and use by all states in conformity with international regulations, that States retain jurisdiction and control over objects they have launched into outer space and that States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.

Chapter VII of the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union, Article 44 on the Use of the Radio-Frequency Spectrum and of the Geostationary-Satellite and Other Satellite Orbits, states that “Member States shall endeavour to limit the number of frequencies and the spectrum used to the minimum essential to provide in a satisfactory manner the necessary services. To that end, they shall endeavour to apply the latest technical advances as soon as possible. In using frequency bands for radio services, Member States shall bear in mind that radio frequencies and any associated orbits, including the geostationary-satellite orbit, are limited natural resources and that they must be used rationally, efficiently and economically, in conformity with the provisions of the Radio Regulations, so that countries or groups of countries may have equitable access to those orbits and frequencies, taking into account the special needs of the developing countries and the geographical situation of particular countries”.

As a conclusion, concerning the legality of artificial shooting stars, considering the fact that orbit, are limited natural resources and that they must be used rationally, efficiently and economically, this project of artificial shooting stars is thus legal but highly debatable on the moral, ecological, legal and political levels.