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comment: I've used a somewhat innocuous abstraction of 'pranks in space' below, but there's no end to the trouble that could be caused and the increasing ease with which a state (nation or otherwise) could cause it. The scope of Article IX of The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is pretty narrow - what exactly happens if party A says that party B may be in violation of article IX? Is there a board of arbitration? Are there any mechanisms of 'punishment' established? What about a non-signatory state? Misdeeds on earth are getting easier to detect and report by independent news media, but how many news orgs have NORAD's capability?

The discussion in the recent article in The Conversation: SpaceX explosion shows why we must slow down private space exploration until we rewrite law focuses mostly on accident and liability issues, and points out that the 50 year old Outer Space Treaty ratified in 1967 may need to be dusted off and looked at more closely. I'd recommend reading the full article - here is a paragraph near the end:

With the increase in private participation in space experimentation and perhaps even mineral mining, the provisions governing civil liability over mishaps arising from the operations of a space station are likely to become one of the most contested areas of space law. What if a module or component part fails to function on a space station? In the absence of multilateral rules on this point, a patchwork of legal rules is gradually maintained through MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding) and other national laws such as the US Commercial Space Launchings Act (CSLA) of 1978. How will private companies fit into these as they possibly become partners?

Further, the "PrankSat" situations may multiply when it becomes more and more common to add significant propulsion capability to cubesats, and control may not be under the same number of levels of security that is currently used for "serious" satellites.

Other terms that may apply in some cases include "tit for tat-sat" and "a proportional response-sat."

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above: Outer Space Treaty parties, signatories, and non-signatories as of March 2015 from here, modified by pasting legend (sorry Antarctica).


If a hypothetical President Wisenheimer felt secure that his/her country's large supply of neodymium, palladium and unobtainium gives them some economic protection, what international regulations, agreements, or other forces could help the rest of the world stop, or at least discourage the president from allowing his/her brother in law's aerospace company OrbitalPranksters from launching PrankSat and putting it in orbit in front of the Hubble Space Telescope?

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The pranksters know what a collimator is, and understand that the basic point-to-parallel-to-point method will add to the image on the CCD even if it significantly under-fills the telescope's aperture. It will be in focus at all distances since both have infinity conjugate focci. (image from a randomly chosen internet optics catalog), and here are some other collimators that project images into telescopes.

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PrankSat could navigate near the HST, or - since the divergence of the FOV is small - intercept the scheduled HST view from kilometers away and "Flash". It could also attach itself to the HST in some way, occasionally move into view, and really become a pest.

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above: I found this on the internet. Used with warm regards to Dr. Tyson and all he does to further the public's understanding of science.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Chris B. Behrens, Hohmannfan Mar 1 '18 at 10:26

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Look at the outer space treaty, article 9, for example. $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Sep 14 '16 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ @2012rcampion I've used a somewhat innocuous abstraction of 'pranks in space' but there's no end to the trouble that could be caused and the increasing ease with which a state (nation or otherwise) could cause it. The scope of that paragraph is pretty narrow - what exactly happens if party A says that party B may be in violation of article IX? Is there a board of arbitration? Are there any mechanisms of 'punishment' established? What about a non-signatory state? Misdeeds on earth are getting easier to detect and report by independent news media, but how many news orgs have NORAD's capability? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 14 '16 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh I'm afraid I have to agree with what the others are saying. There's no tangible regulation on the situation you're aiming for because it can't happen yet. When it becomes more feasible, then you will see action. Until then, the answer to what you seem to be aiming for is speculation. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Sep 15 '16 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I'm not being dismissive. I took quite some time to consider your question. I understand what you're getting at, but I'm afraid trying to approach it in such a generalized manner will make it unanswerable--at least in the sense that you won't be able to get the answer you're looking for. I understand you wanting to avoid specific scenarios, but I think that's really the only way to go here. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Sep 16 '16 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ XKCD Won! $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Sep 18 '16 at 12:01
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For your specific example, the answer is cost. Nobody is going to spend hundreds of millions (or even just 1% of that) just to prank a community of astronomers.

For other examples? What stops China or Russia from launching a set of rockets to destroy GPS satellites, or military communication satellites? Neither country wants to initiate World War III. What stops a private company from doing the same? Cost, technological capability, laws, negative consequences, lack of positive consequences, etc. Even though private space industry is coming up, it's still heavily government regulated. If a private company in Russia were to launch a set of rockets from Russia that just happen to destroy the GPS constellation (why the heck would they do that?), the Kremlin probably should expect a phone call from the White House, and quite likely somewhat more than that. If Inmarsat were to launch a set of rockets destroying the Iridium constellation, they won't stay in business terribly long.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! There are states and nations who are not currently taking any calls from the White House. I understand the idea that - I'll try to paraphrase - nobody would do anything bad in space because it wouldn't make sense, but like developing a nuclear warhead in the late 20th and early 21st century, stuff happens. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 14 '16 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh "There are states and nations who are not currently taking any calls from the White House" -- North Korea is the only one I can think of, actually, given that an attack on GPS is an attack on a US military asset and the US might decide to communicate via cruise missile. And North Korea takes China's calls, and China takes the US's calls. $\endgroup$ – cpast Sep 14 '16 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ North Korea is also quite far from being able to physically attack GPS or other (US military) satellites. Hitting a satellite is not easy, those things are fast. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Sep 14 '16 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ @cpast This question is about regulations, agreements, or other forces can help mitigate behavior of a satellite in space that causes trouble to another satellite. It is not "please name one specific example of bad behavior in space and explain why that one example won't happen" or "why wouldn't someone harm the US-operated GPS satellite constellation?" My comment about nukes "in the late 20th and early 21st century" is an example of behavior (by multiple countries, not just one) that is costly but doesn't necessarily make sense to address the idea that cost alone would be sufficient. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 15 '16 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ The cost of the proposed 3U cubesat with COTS ADCS, solar panels, a mirror, LED, and a picture of Dr. Tyson is probably of order one million dollars, not "hundreds of millions" as stated in your answer, unless of course he sues for defamation! ;-) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 28 '18 at 6:39
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The answer, as gerrit has eluded to, is that going to space is hard and expensive, which places it outside the realm of even the most dedicated pranksters.

For example, assuming you can get your pranksat a launch, there is a bevy of launch-vehicle levied requirements on how your pranksat must be designed. Each of those needs to be validated through (most likely) testing, to ensure that your payload will not harm the launch vehicle (for example, by shaking apart in its container.) The facilities and knowledge to execute such testing and design is expensive.

There's also a ton of national and international bureaucracy involved in going to space. How would you talk to your prospective pranksat? You'd likely use radio, which in the United States places you under the thumb of the FCC. It would be difficult to convince the safety-oriented bureaucrats at the FCC that a pranksat is worth allocating the radio bandwidth.

Finally, the act of conducting rendezvous is non-trivial; determining a spacecraft's orientation and position requires specialized hardware and software that requires considerable expertise to construct. Additionally, flying around near other spacecraft is a great way to collide with them, causing at the very least an international incident and at the worst a major debris-causing incident.

While cubesats are becoming more common, the factors outlined above place hard constraints on the cost and inherent risk of building the type of pranksat you outline.

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  • $\begingroup$ 41332 and 41333 $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 16 '16 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ 747's cost a few hundred million dollars a piece - and yet cost didn't stop them from being used 'irrationally' in quite a heinous but effective manner, bureaucracy or federal laws didn't stop it either. There are too many states, nations, and groups who wouldn't mind at all if they caused an international incident. Consider that Piracy at sea has been costing US$ 6 billion per year in trade even though "it's against the rules and international agreements." See also. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 16 '16 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ I was responding to your question - "what international regulations, agreements, or other forces could help the rest of the world stop [such a thing]?" If you're going to ignore how hard it would be to launch and the international relations issues involved, the question boils down to "what would stop someone dedicated to causing problems from doing so," which is only tangentially related to space in this case. As with piracy, the better question is - what would motivate them to do so, given the large incentives not to? $\endgroup$ – Andrew H. Sep 16 '16 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ There isn't an international space force dedicated to policing orbit, if that's what you're getting at. The inherent technical difficulties and international risks are the bar, but if you're willing to overcome those, you can go ruin whoever's mission you wanted in orbit. $\endgroup$ – Andrew H. Sep 16 '16 at 16:14

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