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In the past I had encountered a few mentions of orbits being patented (or at least applications filed) but didn't take much notice. Then I did a simple search and was blown away by the sheer volume of activity - mostly USPTO but EPO as well.

Is spacecraft maneuver intellectual property actively traded by entities actually involved in the space industry? Are orbits, or orbital maneuvers ever avoided - with deference to less optimal ones - in order to avoid paying royalties? (...or are royalties ever paid?)

Bonus points: If I patent a bunch of orbits or maneuvers, can I convince (leverage) entities to hire me as a consultant in exchange for not suing them? (humor - mostly)

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    $\begingroup$ Can you link some examples, to save others the trouble of duplicating your research? $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ Of course IP is traded. That's the point of developing IP. Here's the brutal economics: There are at least ten unbaked ideas for every even half-baked idea, and there are at least ten half-baked ideas for every idea that makes sense. Those unbaked ideas cost tens of thousands dollars (or more) each, and the half-baked ideas cost hundreds of thousands dollars (or more) each. The one percent of ideas that are worthwhile cost even more to develop, and they have to not only pay for themselves, they have to pay for all of those lesser ideas that did not meet the cut. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ google.com/patents/US6116545 for example? $\endgroup$
    – Andy
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh If we aren't looking at the same thing you're looking at, the conversation can get very confused. This is one of the reasons questions on SX are supposed to show evidence of initial research. It's not hard to put in a link to one example. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove you are right - give me a few hours to get to a decent keyboard and internet connection, and I'll add some examples to the question, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 13:40

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I have never heard of a patented maneuver before. There are maneuver strategies that operators will perform but there are many common ones like a Hohmann Transfer and a pure inclination change. I would suspect that maneuver strategy are just a closely guarded company secret, not patented. I worked with many operators who said directly how they maneuver and their maneuver strategy and another would not provide any details in fear their strategy would be leak somehow. There are also consultants that would help you design your trajectory like Space Exploration Engineering Corporation (SEE) and if they do not have any maneuver strategies, then no one does.

Also, if you were to prove that someone performed your patented maneuver? There is only one Space Situational Awareness system capable of this, it is the Commercial Space Operations Center (ComSpOC). So far there is minimal adoption of this but it will see more interest when the JSPOC implements the same technology as the ComSpOC in the near future.

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    $\begingroup$ Check this out for example: Boeing Patent Shuts Down AMC-14 Lunar Flyby Salvage Attempt, There are probably multiple layers behind this story, but let it serve as an existence proof. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 5:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Andy linked to a lunar flyby patent https://www.google.com/patents/US6116545 which I also used in this question. There are a lot of spacecraft maneuver patents, Process patents, algorithm patents, you can read a little about it in Fly Me to the Moon for example. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ This invention was not obvious at the time it was invented. When the AsiaSat 3 launch failed, the orbital physicists did not immediately realize that they could use this method to salvage the satellite. I seem to recall that Hughes' CEO called them twice to ask if they could do a better job of salvaging the satellite before they came up with this solution. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ Could you clarify what it is about ComSpOC that differentiates itself from JSpOC specifically in respect of detecting patented manoeuvres? $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh: Although I don't think we'll get any more of them. If the maneuver doesn't involve lagrange points there'll be a youtube video of someone doing it in KSP now. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 18:13
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I would like to add one point here that I realized when researching patents for a different technology:

While in the short term the patent system seems to protect intellectual property, in the long term it actually preserves knowledge of how to build things. So while we might think it could be a bad thing, just extrapolate our scientific society out for a few thousand years, we may actually want a record of how to do stuff that isn't being done anymore so we can do it again if the need arises.

I think the main thing that could be improved though is to reduce the swamp of mere 'idea-patents'. Once you look into it, you will quickly discover which patent encodes actual experience and which ones are just paper dreams. And the latter ones outnumber the former ones by an order of magnitude, at least in the niche that I was looking at.

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Spacecraft Maneuvers as Intellectual Property? Wow!

I was thinking the same thing until I realized every orbital maneuver patent I was looking at was actually a process or method patent of the underlying calculations and software.

Do we see patents on the use of actual orbital maneuvers themselves in which the patent holds regardless of the algorithm used to plan the orbital maneuver?

So far I haven't found any.


1On a side note, it's a joke how much infinite crap people are allowed to patent. The processes are often comnpletely unoriginal, in a way even worse than Amazon's infamous "One Click" patent.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a really good point and I hadn't considered it! Welcome to Stack Exchange! Answer posts should strive to include supporting sources. If possible, citing a few examples of the process patents you've come across would be great, thanks! (comments under the question and other answers may be sources for such.) I've adjusted the wording of your post slightly to better fit the style of the site and to separate the opinion aspect of your post from the fact-based part. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ I have to agree here: Basic science and math cannot be patented. But the unique process that employs them can be. Likewise an alternate process that identically uses then same science and math can also be patented if it shows something uniquely different in that alternate process (e.g., cost, time, or material savings). $\endgroup$
    – Chris Ison
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 15:47

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