The 'space nation' Asgardia will attempt its first launch this summer -- with help from a Russian billionaire

  • A non-profit organisation called Asgardia is trying to form the first nation in space.
  • Asgardia will launch a small satellite in summer 2017 as a means of establishing its presence in orbit.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people have registered to become citizens and will soon vote on a constitution.
  • However, experts are uncertain if Asgardia could become a nation, and it’s unclear how it will fund or build a human space colony.

The Space Kingdom of Asgardia has announced what may be a significant step towards becoming recognised as the first nation to orbit Earth.

The founders of Asgardia, which is named after Norse mythology’s city in the skies, hope to create a peaceful, space-faring nation that mines asteroids and defends planet Earth from dangerous meteorites, space debris, and other threats. They announced the existence of Asgardia in October 2016, and subsequently garnered hundreds of thousands of citizenship applications.

For now, Asgardia is a non-profit non-governmental organisation based out of Vienna, Austria. The group aims to help its roughly 200,000 future citizens form a recognisable government, though many complex steps remain before Asgardia could ever become a real nation — if it ever does.

But the founding members said during a June 13 press briefing in Hong Kong that they will soon launch Asgardia-1: the proto-nation’s first satellite.

“The first presence of the Asgardian nation, we can now say, will be in space this year,” Jeffrey Manber, the CEO of a satellite company called NanoRacks, which was contracted to make Asgardia-1, said during the briefing. Manber added that the satellite “may turn out to be the most important and lasting [idea] that we’re working with.”

Asgardia space nation first satellite nanoracksAsgardia/NanoRacksAn illustration of the Asgardia-1 satellite built by NanoRacks.

The spacecraft is a nano satellite, or “nanosat,” that will be about the size of a loaf of bread. It will weigh about as much as a newborn baby, and carry data uploaded by Asgardian citizens.

The nanosat will launch aboard Orbital ATK’s upcoming mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 12, 2017, riding inside a cargo spacecraft that NASA has contracted to deliver supplies to astronauts in space.

Once the spacecraft docks at the space station, the crew will pop Asgardia-1 inside a special nanosat dispenser and eject it into orbit.

The effort is being bankrolled by Asgardia founding member Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian aerospace engineer and billionaire, and led in part by Ram Jakhu, the director of McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law.

“Asgardia will be a space nation that is a trans-ethnic, trans-national, trans-religious, ethical, peaceful entity trying to settle the humanity in space,” Jakhu said during the briefing.

He added that Asgardia will start out as a constitutional monarchy — a government with a legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

A nation of space pirates?

The Asgardia-1 nanosat won’t do much more than orbit Earth, but it will carry a 512-GB drive pre-loaded with data selected by Asgardia’s first 1.5 million citizens.

“Maybe the photo of your little cat or of your neighbour, of your mother, or a child — whatever comes to your mind, this will be for as long as Asgardia exists. In other words, forever,” Ashurbeyli said during the briefing. Although Asgardia-1 will slow down in Earth’s upper atmosphere and burn up within about five years, Ashurbeyli said this citizen data will be copied to any future Asgardian satellites and spacecraft that go to “the moon and anywhere in the universe … Asgardia will be.”

Ashurbeyli said the first 100,000 people to be verified through a four-stage process will each get 300 kilobytes of space on the drive (which is less than one frame of a typical DVD video). The next 400,000 citizens will each get 200 kilobytes each, and the final million will each get 100 kilobytes of space.

Asgardia 1 space nano satellite diagramAsgardiaA blow-up diagram of Asgardia-1.

As part of the verification process, candidate citizens have until June 18 to vote “yes” to (or abstain from voting on) a new and preliminary Constitution. If they do, they will be permitted to upload their data to Asgardia-1 before the launch this summer.

“Without this [constitution], we would be a fake nation — a sophisticated computer game — and this is not what we want,” said Ashurbeyli, who will be Asgardia’s head-of-nation until the a means of electing a leader is determined. “We want to build a serious, legitimate, independent, first space nation which will be recognised by the Earth states and the United Nations, and which is facing toward space and its development.”

But as writer Mark Harris reported for Motherboard, the UN may decline to bestow that recognition. Business Insider previously contacted the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) for clarification on whether current space laws would permit the existence of a space nation, but UNOOSA representatives did not respond to our query. Instead, they directed us to the text of five UN treaties that govern activities in outer space.

Harris also noted that storing private data in space may eventually open up legal and ethical issues for Asgardia. Its constitution, for example, references “the immunity of commercial secrets” and allows the creation of its own laws.

Mark Sundahl, a professor of space law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, told Motherboard that this could allow Asgardia to “create domestic laws to protect their nationals from any subpoenas requesting bank information” and that, if this did come to pass, it “would become a rogue banking nation.” In short: Asgardia’s citizens might be able to build a nation of space pirates.

Business Insider contacted press representatives for Asgardia with questions about these and other issues, but did not immediately receive a response.

For Asgardia-1’s launch, however, the satellite will be bound to US law because NanoRacks and Orbital ATK are American companies and are launching aboard a NASA-funded mission.

How to build a nation in space

Asgardia-1 is a small beginning for the proto-nation. Its founders eventually want to put people on a craft that will serve as a foothold for habitation.

“We’ll start small and eventually people will be going there, and working, and having their own rules and regulations … This facility will become an independent nation,” Jakhu previously told Business Insider.

No public details exist yet as to what the early colony might look like, how big it will be, or what expense it’d incur. However, building space stations of any size or kind and putting people on them is a very expensive proposition — the football-field-sized ISS took 18 nations and about $US100 billion to build. And the cheapest ride to orbit today is SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which costs between about $US43 million and $US65 million per launch.

Timothy Wild, an Asgardia spokesperson, previously told Business Insider that it would not disclose the organisation’s funding plans or levels, but claimed Ashurbeyli had put forth a substantial amount of money to get the Asgardia project going.

Jakhu and Asgardia’s organisers have drawn plenty of criticism, and have been compared to the fizzling Mars One project — an effort to set astronauts down on the red planet (which multiple investigations suggest lacks the funding, manpower, and expertise to pull off the feat). However, Jakhu and Wild pointed out that trying to form the first space nation a couple hundred miles above Earth is different than trying to colonize Mars.

“Anyone who tries out-of-the-box things is initially ridiculed,” Jakhu previously said. “Everything that’s amazing starts with a crazy idea. After a while, science fiction becomes science fact, and this is an idea which is just being initiated.”

Disclosure: The author of this post registered as a citizen of Asgardia as part of his reporting.

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