The geostationary orbit : a critical legal geography of space’s most valuable real estate

Collis, Christy (2012) The geostationary orbit : a critical legal geography of space’s most valuable real estate. In Parks, Lisa & Schwoch, James (Eds.) Down to Earth : Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 61-81.

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This chapter attends to the legal and political geographies of one of Earth's most important, valuable, and pressured spaces: the geostationary orbit. Since the first, NASA, satellite entered it in 1964, this small, defined band of Outer Space, 35,786km from the Earth's surface, and only 30km wide, has become a highly charged legal and geopolitical environment, yet it remains a space which is curiously unheard of outside of specialist circles. For the thousands of satellites which now underpin the Earth's communication, media, and data industries and flows, the geostationary orbit is the prime position in Space. The geostationary orbit only has the physical capacity to hold approximately 1500 satellites; in 1997 there were approximately 1000. It is no overstatement to assert that media, communication, and data industries would not be what they are today if it was not for the geostationary orbit.

This chapter provides a critical legal geography of the geostationary orbit, charting the topography of the debates and struggles to define and manage this highly-important space. Drawing on key legal documents such as the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty, the chapter addresses fundamental questions about the legal geography of the orbit, questions which are of growing importance as the orbit’s available satellite spaces diminish and the orbit comes under increasing pressure. Who owns the geostationary orbit? Who, and whose rules, govern what may or may not (literally) take place within it? Who decides which satellites can occupy the orbit? Is the geostationary orbit the sovereign property of the equatorial states it supertends, as these states argued in the 1970s? Or is it a part of the res communis, or common property of humanity, which currently legally characterises Outer Space? As challenges to the existing legal spatiality of the orbit from launch states, companies, and potential launch states, it is particularly critical that the current spatiality of the orbit is understood and considered.

One of the busiest areas of Outer Space’s spatiality is international territorial law. Mentions of Space law tend to evoke incredulity and ‘little green men’ jokes, but as Space becomes busier and busier, international Space law is growing in complexity and importance. The chapter draws on two key fields of research: cultural geography, and critical legal geography. The chapter is framed by the cultural geographical concept of ‘spatiality’, a term which signals the multiple and dynamic nature of geographical space. As spatial theorists such as Henri Lefebvre assert, a space is never simply physical; rather, any space is always a jostling composite of material, imagined, and practiced geographies (Lefebvre 1991). The ways in which a culture perceives, represents, and legislates that space are as constitutive of its identity--its spatiality--as the physical topography of the ground itself. The second field in which this chapter is situated—critical legal geography—derives from cultural geography’s focus on the cultural construction of spatiality. In his Law, Space and the Geographies of Power (1994), Nicholas Blomley asserts that analyses of territorial law largely neglect the spatial dimension of their investigations; rather than seeing the law as a force that produces specific kinds of spaces, they tend to position space as a neutral, universally-legible entity which is neatly governed by the equally neutral 'external variable' of territorial law (28). 'In the hegemonic conception of the law,' Pue similarly argues, 'the entire world is transmuted into one vast isotropic surface' (1990: 568) on which law simply acts. But as the emerging field of critical legal geography demonstrates, law is not a neutral organiser of space, but is instead a powerful cultural technology of spatial production. Or as Delaney states, legal debates are “episodes in the social production of space” (2001, p. 494). International territorial law, in other words, makes space, and does not simply govern it. Drawing on these tenets of the field of critical legal geography, as well as on Lefebvrian concept of multipartite spatiality, this chapter does two things. First, it extends the field of critical legal geography into Space, a domain with which the field has yet to substantially engage. Second, it demonstrates that the legal spatiality of the geostationary orbit is both complex and contested, and argues that it is crucial that we understand this dynamic legal space on which the Earth’s communications systems rely.

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ID Code: 53252
Item Type: Book Chapter
Additional Information: reprint of:
Collis, Christy (2009) The Geostationary orbit : a critical legal geography of space’s most valuable real estate. In Parker, Martin & Bell, David (Eds.) Space Travel and Culture : From Apollo to Space Tourism. Wiley-Blackwell, London, pp. 47-65.
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Keywords: satellites, geostationary orbit, space, outer space
ISBN: 9780813552736
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > LANGUAGES COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE (200000) > COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA STUDIES (200100)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > LANGUAGES COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE (200000) > CULTURAL STUDIES (200200)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2012 Rutgers University Press
Deposited On: 21 Aug 2012 22:26
Last Modified: 24 Jun 2017 14:35

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