Why ‘Asgardia’ is more likely to be a pie in the sky than a nation in space

Artist’s impression. James Vaughan

I have become citizen number 62 of Asgardia, a new space nation dedicated to expanding peaceful exploration of space for the benefit of humanity. It is led by Igor Ashurbeyli, chairman of UNESCO’s Science of Space Committee and founder of the Aerospace International Research Centre in Vienna. At first glance, it’s an amazing concept and surely one that every space scientist should welcome.

According to its website, Asgardia will offer an “independent platform free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws. It will become a place in orbit which is truly ‘no man’s land’”. Its first aim is to launch a satellite in October 2017, on the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. Another goal is to create a “protective shield” from threats to life on Earth, such as space debris, coronal mass ejections and asteroids.

The project, announced at a press conference in Paris on October 12, is urging people to sign up to become citizens. Ashurbeyli has said that when the number of applications goes above 100,000, the organisation can officially apply to the UN for the status of state. The claims are visionary – but could they be something of a mirage?

In Norse mythology, Asgard is one of the Nine Worlds of the ancient gods, ruled over by Odin. Set in the skies, it is connected to Earth by the rainbow bridge, Bifrost. In taking the name Asgardia for the new “nation state”, the founders call upon its potential citizens to create an independent world of peaceful scientific cooperation. I am not sure the mythological world of Asgard is the best model for such an aspiration: after all, the largest hall in Asgard is Valhalla, where warriors killed in battle spend their time feasting or fighting.

More fitting perhaps are the descriptions of Asgard in the fictional Marvel universe, where it’s a world that “exists in another dimensional plane and is about the size of the United States”. According to Marvel’s history, Asgard was created by the god Thor on Earth, where he had bought a huge piece of property. But Iron Man confronted Thor about his construction, “and after a short but heated debate, [Iron Man] proposed to Thor that Asgard would be considered a separate nation just like a foreign embassy”. I enjoyed the phrase “short but heated debate” – surely code for a punch-up. But a “separate nation just like a foreign embassy” is pretty much what the Asgardia of today is proposing.

The need to stay grounded

But when you turn your attention from the world of mythology and super heroes back to reality, things are a little less exciting. What, exactly, is Asgardia? What is it for? What will it do? How will it operate? What is its governance? How is it funded? The organisation has failed to disclose any such information.

We already have the International Space Station as an example of international collaboration in space, including both governments and private organisations. Although the ISS works well, it is regulated by international space agencies and wrapped in the associated bureaucracy. If Asgardia’s vision is to make space and experimentation in space more accessible, then that is laudable, but cannot be completely divorced from the necessity of some regulation.

When it comes to plans to defend the Earth from space debris we need a bit more substance than an aim to launch a satellite. Maybe I am cynical, but I’d like to know who is doing the work. Where is this satellite being built? How will Asgardia achieve something that no other nation, or consortium of nations, has come close to achieving?

Artist’s impression of the first Asgardia satellite. James Vaughan

I also have some worries about the wording in the Concept. In particular, it complains about the fact that “economical and political considerations often take precedence over purely scientific ones and ethical boundaries are considered necessary to sustain safety”. To combat this, it says “Asgardia will demonstrate … that independent, private and unrestricted research is possible”. To me, ethical boundaries are necessary – especially if unrestricted research is on the agenda and it is to be “free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws”. History has given us too many examples where unrestricted research has resulted in unacceptable consequences – the Nazis, for example, did a lot of unethical and unscientific research.

We currently have laws and treaties that govern the peaceful use of space, acknowledged by all space-faring nations and operated through the UN. They may not be perfect, and may be in need of revision, given the accelerating pace of space technologies and the increasing influence and role of private companies in space exploration. But at least they are a framework within which nations must operate.

Importantly, these laws state that the nation launching a satellite – or procures the launch of one – is liable for any damage caused by it. The office in charge of these laws also oversees the international register of all objects launched into space, and co-ordinates efforts to monitor space debris.

If Asgardia is serious in its desire to be an independent player in space exploration, then it must consider its duties relative to the UN treaties – any attempt to become a “launching state” or procure a launch for a satellite leaves Asgardia liable if something goes wrong. It is difficult to reconcile this with Asgardia’s declared aim of being “free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws”. No nation should be free to act completely independently of its neighbours – and by basing the idea of Asgardia in space, every nation on Earth is Asgardia’s neighbour. There is no doubt that space law is in need of an urgent update – but I don’t believe that acting completely independently of land-based laws is a useful way forward.

I hope that my doubts and concerns are groundless, and that Asgardia will indeed fulfil its promise to act for the benefit of humanity. Especially as by the time I had finished this article, the number of citizens of Asgardia had climbed to almost 20,000.

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