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Space is useful for storage. In the future there is a thriving space real-estate market. Generally speaking, space in orbit is more desirable than outer space but both have a market value.

  1. How can space in orbit be allocated and sold? How can an owner prove that they own that orbit or part of an orbit?

  2. Is it even possible to sell chunks of non-orbit outer space and how could it be delineated?


Assumptions

  1. In general, the laws of physics are the same as today except that we know much, much more about them.

  2. This is the far-future so FTL is allowed. However it is strictly regulated to prevent horrendous collisions. There are 'shipping' ports that must be used with clear known destinations.

  3. You may restrict your answer to Earth, Earth and Moon, Solar system, or other areas of space as you prefer. I suspect the rules will be pretty much the same everywhere.

  4. If you wish you can assume galaxy-wide space exploration and that some planets are more valuable in terms of resources than others.

  5. Some of the volumes of space can just be used as parking bays for spacecraft.

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    $\begingroup$ The valuation aspect seems straightforward - a region of space can be valued the exact same way any other asset is: it's worth whatever someone else will pay you for it. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Sep 24 '20 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean an entire orbit being bought and sold (imho we are not too far from it), or chunks of the same orbit bought and sold separately? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Sep 24 '20 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ "How can an owner prove that they own that orbit or part of an orbit?" They show a valid title, just like for any other piece of real estate. "Is it even possible to sell chunks of non-orbit outer space": Of course it is possible to sell it if you own it. Beware that any potential buyer will want proof that you own it; see previous question. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 24 '20 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander - I envisage both. A large company could buy an entire orbit and have the option of leasing parts of it to smaller companies and individuals. $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Sep 24 '20 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ "non-orbit outer space" - that does not make sense. You have to be orbiting something, no matter where you are. It might be an orbit around the center of the galaxy, or an orbit around the center of a galaxy cluster. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Sep 25 '20 at 19:39
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Right now, the space is free. However, certain orbits around Earth, like Geostationary orbits are very valuable, and clash of interests is becoming common. What are the next possible steps in the development of "Space Law"?

Step 1: Space is too crowded to be free for all

Most companies and governments will recognize that satellites can no longer be put into orbit without coordination with others. This development is already underway: Geostationary orbit allocation

Step 2: International authority to allocate space for free

To establish universal regulation, an international space authority will be formed. It will be tacked with tracking all existing satellites and issuing permits for the new ones. At first, this will be done for a nominal fee. Next, we will see auctions to get permission for some more valuable orbits.

Step 3: Monetizing orbits

After "Orbit rights" are established, a secondary market of reselling orbits will flourish. A secure way of delivering multiple satellites sharing the same orbit will provide a way to own a "chunk" of orbit.

After space around Earth is commercialized, the process can be repeated for other parts of Solar system.

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I guess what would have to be worked out is getting the material from the planet out into orbit. Getting material to outer space is extremely costly. It costs $10,000 to put 1 lb. into Earth's orbit. So that cost has to be factored in the market value. Enough competition could bring that down.

If there are multiple companies, they could own 3-D chunks of space around the earth beginning at the Karman line (100 km) to 1500 km. If it is just storing personal items or things that are non-scientific or hazardous, then I would think the lower orbits would make it easier for retrieval. I think that orbital storage would most likely be used like a safe deposit box: you put very valuable things in it that you're not going to need for a long time, and then retrieve them if you need them.

It does not really make sense to own "part" of an orbit unless the person who was storing stuff was paying multiple companies based on how much time the orbiting module spends in certain regions of space. I think instead there would be lanes set up around the earth that different companies would own. Your orbiting storage container could orbit within their lane. There would also be a separate set of companies that offer space-debris insurance. Right now there are tons of satellites that are put out of commission by small particles careening through space.

I'm picturing the economic chain would work like this:

Storage containers that can protect your valuables from space debris and radiation, as well as extreme temperature. More expensive storage units have thrusters or some way to reposition the satellite for easier retrieval.

A small group of companies would own "lanes" surrounding the Earth. A central registrar would keep track of who owns what lane and to ensure new lanes don't interfere. Certain lanes would be reserved for scientific research, while others would be for communications, while others can be used for storage. This has to be worked out because some satellites in orbit need to orbit at a certain path so that they can do their jobs.

Space insurers will reimburse you the cost of your valuables should they be damaged by space debris. Satellite collisions are relatively unheard of because there is so much space up there, but I can see some enterprising company offering this for an extra buck. There would also have to be space insurers in case your orbital storage falls to the earth and does damage. The companies that own the lanes will most likely form a cartel and wash their hands of all liability when you agree to use their lanes.

Low orbit ferry service: You have to retrieve your storage somehow, so there has to be a relatively cheap and easy way to bring yourself up to your storage unit or bring it back down to you.

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Property rights only exist when there are laws which recognize and guarantee them.

Laws only exist when there is an authority with the power to enforce them.

So if you want to turn orbital space into a commodity which is traded on an open market, you first need some organization which is willing to create rules for the use of orbits and able to enforce those rules if anyone violates them. The details of how such an organization comes to be, how it's structured and organized is up to you. But the necessity of such an organization in the near future is already pretty obvious. Currently the main source of space law is the Outer Space Treaty. It basically says that any nation can launch anything into any orbit they like, as long as it doesn't carry weapons of mass destruction. And if those objects cause any damage, the nation which launched them has to pay for it.

But since that treaty was made, commercial use of space became more and more prevalent. And now we are just a couple years away of private companies being able to launch payloads into orbit without the help of any government. All that SpaceX still needs to operate independently of NASA is an own launch base - which they are already building and are already using for suborbital test flights. They are going to be the first privately owned company to be able to do that, but they won't be the last. That means civil law conflicts are going to arise. The OST was primarily written with governments in mind, so it is insufficient at covering the affairs of private companies. That means a reform of the OST will be inevitable in the next decades.

This will very likely require some international regulation body with the authority to fine private enterprises which violate the rules and the capabilities to forcefully remove objects in orbits where they have no right to be.

Regarding pricing of orbits: This is something which will very likely succumb to the laws of supply and demand. Just like any other limited resource. Beneficial but limited orbits, like low-earth orbits, equatorial, geostationary or Lagrange points will have a much higher demand than there is supply, so they will be as expensive as any company will be able and willing to pay. When there is no officially sanctioned market for trading orbital rights, then there will soon be a black market where people make backroom deals to move the rights to an orbit from one company to another in an inofficial manner ("the orbit is registered on us, but you can place your satellite there if you pay us $x per month through a straw man. You need to paint our logo on it and control it through our ground stations so nobody can prove we illegally traded an orbit, but you will be the ones who have full control over it").

But space is big. Very, very big. If you are not picky about getting a very specific orbit and just want your object gravitationally bound to the planet, then you will very likely be able to get some orbit nobody else wants for a negligible administrative charge.

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By one Orbit, get one for free

Any orbit around any Planet will have 2 Major factors playing into its value. First one being Altitute and 2nd the Orbital inclination, aka the Angle of the Orbit in respect to the Equator.

In General, the higher your Inclination is, the more Valuable the Orbit becomes, for a few Reasons. First one, the View. With a High Inclination, you will pass over the Polar Caps and that is probably a good selling point. "See the Aurora From Space, daily". The next reason is that such an Orbit will Intersect with other Orbits at a way higher velocity so there need to be gaps. Gaps in which other stuff could be, thus higher Price.

The Value of the Orbit will decress as Hight incresses, because there is Physically more space higher up and the View is less cool.

So the basic rules should be:

  1. Higher Inclination = Higher Value
  2. Lower Hight = Higher Value

In terms of Owning the Orbit, i would guess you cant just flat out Own the entire thing. Probably more a Buble that is on the Orbital Plane. So you could buy lets say a Bubble with radius 100km around your Station. It should be easy to understand that a higher Radius also means a higher price.

Lets buy some space

When it comes to buying space that is not in the Orbit of a Planet, its the same ideas. The more you want to more you pay. I could however see that everything outside of a lets say 100.000km Bubble around the Surface of a Planet is declared as International Waters. But since everyone wants Money, the UN or someone International would probably be the Person you buy a chunck of space from.

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First, space is huge. Really huge. Generally if you want to put something in orbit and something else is already there, you just need to pick a slightly higher or lower orbit, or occupy the same orbit but some distance ahead or behind.

The most valuable orbital real estate are geostationary orbits, because you need to occupy a fixed point above the equator to avoid moving in the sky relative to the ground. This is a ring of 130,000km of useful space. Maybe it is allocated in blocks of 10km or 1km to avoid near misses, allow for orbital approaches, etc.

Once we split it into blocks, potentially multiple people will bid to occupy an orbital point because it is the ideal point for broadcasting over the US, or over the EU, or whatever purpose they have.

Slots in geostationary orbit could be owned by the first occupying organisation, or claimed by the country on the equator underneath, or shared between all countries on that line of longitude. Slots over the ocean might be owned by the nearest country, or shared between the countries on both sides.

But if there is lots of competition for a slot, someone can just build a suitably large space station to mount all the antennas or sensors required. You might have to rent both the space you need in the station and the frequency range you need to avoid interference with someone else. And your space station can be arbitrarily large, especially in the north-south axis

Eventually you could end up with a 130,000km continuous ring - though this would prevent anyone from having geosynchronous satellites that occupy a geostationary slot or two, but pass through it north and south at the same time each day instead of staying above the equator.

And you could have one or more space elevators connecting to the large stations in geostationary orbit, which also have stations at the counterweight point above them.

The same logic would also apply to a space station at a Lagrange point, except ownership would either be claimed by the organisation that built it, a planet wide governing body, or the last organisation to seize it by force.

For lower circular orbits, it is either a free for all, or you really need a planet wide body to administer claims. It would be very similar to a land registry today. Your claim could reference an altitude, and a phase parameter that would determine where you are in relation to everything else sharing the same orbit. This could be a position at a fixed point in time, and all future positions are then extrapolated from it. Satellites can have different inclinations and you ensure that they cross the equator (and each others orbits) at different times, or more likely everything forms a train in the same inclination, for a much greater density.

The registry body will need to be closely tied to the local military - unregistered objects would risk being destroyed, or the flip side is that if there is no local military, there is nobody enforcing the claims.

At some point it stops being useful to have lots of satellites, and we upgrade to bigger satellites instead. So we have a few rival GPS constellations with small numbers of satellites, but having lots of rival GPS systems just wastes radio bandwidth. We'll have thousands of LEO internet satellites, but there are diminishing returns once any user has a choice of a few providers and can see a few satellites overhead. Space based manufacturing or resorts - the bigger the better. Space based power can also just scale up if the number of satellites gets too high.

Any elliptical orbits would risk intersecting anything in a circular orbit, so a satellite in an elliptical orbit probably has to take responsibility for avoiding anything in a circular shell as it passes through.

Beyond geostationary orbits, there is going to be lots of empty space to go around. You might have some traffic control, but your main concern is probably planetary defence against kinetic bombardment, or smuggling, rather than traffic collision avoidance.

The same logic would apply to any other planet, although they might not spin fast enough for geostationary orbits to useful.

And asteroids are likely just claimed on a first come basis, though larger bodies might be claimed by governments, or could be self-governing.

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Space is Free. Owning space is not...

Owning the space isn't all that useful--after all, space is, so far as humans are concerned, infinite. What is worth money is finding a way to use that space. You have to find ways to increase demand for the services that are necessary to actually utilize that space, keep it private, what have you. Rich people don't just buy the Amazon forest, they will buy private islands or chunks of the forest that they can use how they see fit.

So your valuation would have to be based on what can be provided, including transportation, docking, and storage services. By docking in this case, we mean the ability to park objects within your "area" of space. In earth orbit today, orbits are already competitive, highly regulated, and expensive; as technology advances, more areas and better docking techniques could be employed, but the demand for owned space would be limited to useful orbits, or the occasional government/billionaire attempting to hold some area of space for a status symbol or for strategic reasons. In that case it's very like the oceans of today; having a dock with a motorboat that can go deep sea fishing is a lot more valuable than a document entitling you to a couple cubic metres of Atlantic Ocean. If I were designing an economic system, I'd make the space free, and regulate and charge people rent for transportation, storage, orbital communication, insurance, etc.

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23rd Century Mineral rights:

Everything would need to be relative and positional. for example, you control the space over the land you own up 20 kilometers. Ocean would suddenly become valuable. Geostationary satellites would need to stay in a fixed box or pay incidental usage fees. An orbiting satellite would constantly be racking up costs. You could sell your space rights much like mineral rights. Nations would own space up an additional 20-50 km. International organizations like the UN could run things like Lagrange points and become self-funding. Lawyers and governments would fill space with radars, scanning for illicit space trespassing, and courts would be tied up in litigation - but with advanced tech, it could certainly be done.

Space much further out starts to become hard to govern. It may not be worth trying to assert such claims, and perhaps it can be limited to bodies and their immediate surroundings. Space expands exponentially, and (for example) the human race may collectively assert a property claim over the entire solar system out to, say, half a light year. Again, this is relative, so a passing abandoned alien space ship could result in interesting legal disputes. Mankind claims the ship, but the original owners want it back. The ship might be sitting still relative to the aliens, but our solar system is moving, so aliens with a different concept of spatial territory could have fierce disputes. For that matter, what happens when we find we are within an arm of the Galaxy claimed by another species? Does our positional claim hold up against their regional one?

On the other hand, look at a history of colonialism and how that played out with land ownership. Perhaps humanity really DOES need clear claim to space, so some random wandering space hobo can't "sell" the solar system to aliens for the relative cost of a few strings of beads.

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We could in theory just dissect space into 1m * 1m * 1m cubes and have an international organisation or initial colonisers auction it cube by cube.

In practice though, what will matter is which portions of space are more valuable? Regions with more solar radiation or an optimal temperature or a desirable view could fetch more.

If technology is as it is right now, objects won't usually be left stationary in space, they'll be left in orbits, which means soon enough entire orbits would be packaged and sold together. The sum is greater than the parts when you are selling a desirable shape such as an orbit.

You also need laws that are implemented to ensure consequences for people who violate space boundaries. This needs the technology for it, as an accident in densely packed space could set off a chain of collisions with significant impact. Collisions will also give off tiny shards that would spread through space unless collected somehow.

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