The First Space-Based ‘Nation’ Wants to Store Data Off-Planet, Beyond the Law
'Asgardia' plans to launch a data storage satellite beyond the reach of Earthly laws—an ambitious and problematic goal.
Image: Robert McCall/MGM/Public Domain
Self-proclaimed 'space nation' Asgardia will launch a satellite later this year to test the concept of long-term data storage in orbit around the Earth. This potentially opens the door to off-planet data and tax havens, according to filings obtained by Motherboard, and represents an important step towards the group's proclaimed goal of starting a private nation in space.
In October 2016, an international team of scientists and researchers led by Russian businessman and computer scientist Igor Ashurbeyli announced the founding of Asgardia. The wannabe private nation hopes to eventually fly inhabited space stations, to protect the Earth from extraterrestrial threats like asteroids, and to create a demilitarized and freely accessible base of scientific knowledge permanently in orbit.
So far, over 180,000 Earthlings have pledged allegiance to this hypothetical orbital country by filling out a citizenship form online. Anyone on Earth can apply, without sacrificing their existing nationality. Asgardia is currently self-financed by Ashurbeyli and his co-founders but has plans to crowd-fund from its citizens—and eventually to establish taxes.
According to a recent filing with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Asgardia's initial step will be the launch of its first satellite, Asgardia-1, in September. This compact CubeSat, consisting of two stacked 10cm cubes, will piggyback on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Its primary payload is a 512GB solid state drive pre-loaded with data. The filing does not specially what the data will be, although Asgardia is committed to "digitising and storing the wealth of human knowledge in space." Once on orbit, data will be updated and downloaded using the Globalstar constellation of communication satellites.
Asgardia-1 will also contain internal and external particle detectors "to determine the radiation dosing that the internal electronics are receiving," says the filing. The mission is intended to "demonstrate long term storage of data in low earth orbit", although the satellite itself will remain aloft for only five years before atmospheric friction drags it down and burns it up.
The prospect of storing data in orbit, far from the eyes—and laws—of terrestrial nation states, could prove attractive to anyone wanting the ultimate digital vault. Others have tried similar schemes here on Earth: For eight years, a data haven known as HavenCo operated from Sealand—a self-declared sovereign principality housed in a World War II defensive facility, six miles off the coast of England. It offered supposedly secure storage of data that might have been illegal in other countries, such as online gambling websites or secret corporate records. HavenCo went offline in 2008 after legal and financial troubles.
Asgardia's legal ambitions are still unclear. While its draft constitution says that Asgardia will respect "international agreements and wishes to be recognized as equal country among other states on Earth," it also notes that "Asgardia does not interfere in the affairs of the states on Earth on the principle of reciprocity." Its constitution allows it to create its own laws and regulations that may differ considerably from those on Earth, and one of its founding principles is to recognize "the immunity of commercial secrets."
That could ultimately mean a data haven along the lines of the now-defunct HavenCo , or even an extra-terrestrial tax haven, said Mark Sundahl, a professor of space law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. "If they were to achieve statehood, they could create domestic laws to protect their nationals from any subpoenas requesting bank information. But they would become a rogue banking nation."
Asgardia did not respond to requests for comment, but its constitution proposes a banking system consisting of a state-owned national bank, alongside private banks. "The state guarantees bank secrecy," it reads. "Bank secrecy may not be restricted by the law of Asgardia or international treaties." Asgardia will issue its own currency "in the amount tied to the ideal parameters of the Moon." None of the experts Motherboard spoke with could say what that might mean.
There are many legal and technical obstacles ahead. First and foremost, Asgardia's legal status is doubtful, said Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, Editor-in-Chief Emerita at the Journal of Space Law. "A state has a permanent population; a defined territory; a government; and the capacity to enter into relations with other states; and, must be recognized as a state by other states," she said. "So the premise that Asgardia is a nation is debatable."
Perhaps in an effort to influence that debate, Asgardia is doing its best to acquire the trappings of a traditional state. On June 18, Asgardians will vote online to ratify the Constitution and choose a flag, insignia, and national anthem. Asgardia is even adopting its own calendar, a 13-month system with an extra month—called Asgard, naturally—slotted in between June and July. June 18 corresponds to the 1st of Asgard, which will henceforth be known as National Unity Day. Asgardia would need to be accepted as a member of the United Nations to achieve full statehood, but even being recognised by one or several existing countries would give it some credibility.
Even if Asgardia does eventually become a nation, Asgardia-1 will still be considered an American spacecraft, subject to US laws. The UN Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed by every country to reach orbit (including Iran and North Korea), generally defines the nationality of a spacecraft as that of the state procuring or launching it. Asgardia-1 will be deployed from an American Orbital ATK Antares rocket launched from NASA's Wallops facility in Virginia.
If Asgardia chooses a different country for future launches, its next spacecraft might enjoy looser laws. "If Asgardia can find a launching country that is not a signatory to the space treaties, there are no international law obligations," said Sundahl. "At that point, it's the Wild West."
But that is probably straying into the realm of science fiction. Any country venturing into orbit for the first time would face immense international pressure to sign treaties governing jurisdiction, liability and the use of weapons in space. Which would hamper another of Asgardia's outlandish long-term goals, also outlined in its constitution: the building of a fleet of universal robotic combat space platforms, dubbed Urbocops, programmed "to protect Earth and [Asgardia's] orbital satellite constellation." But not necessarily in that order.
Asgardia is holding a press conference next week in Hong Kong to formally unveil its satellite and announce "a new era in the Space Age." Just don't expect to be able to move up to your new orbital homeland anytime soon.
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