December 8, 2011

Suborbital Space Endeavor Finds a Solution at Sea

At The Seasteading Institute, we look at the ocean and see an opportunity to experiment with new forms of government. However, we recognize that the first seasteaders are likely to have more narrow purposes which enable them to profit from specific advantages that international waters possess over land. Sea Launch, a floating platform built to launch rockets, has been benefitting from the geographical characteristics of the equatorial ocean since 1995. Wikipedia reports that at the equator, "[t]he need for a "plane change" to the zero degree inclination of geostationary orbit is eliminated, providing a major extra launch "boost". The same rocket launched from Cape Canaveral at 28.5 degrees north latitude would lift 15%–20% less mass to geostationary orbit." The rotational speed of the earth is also greatest at the equator, providing rockets with additional boost.

More recently, a group of Danes working towards suborbital manned spaceflight has replicated the Sea Launch concept on a smaller scale in the Baltic Sea. Kristian von Bengtson, co-founder and lead spacecraft designer at the open source nonprofit organization Copenhagen Suborbitals, recently documented his group’s successful ocean-based launch for The launch platform, a 12 by 12 meter catamaran, was positioned 12 nautical miles east of the Danish island Bornholm, placing it in the Exclusive Economic Zone, where Denmark has command over natural resources but not the legal code.

The Baltic Sea is less ideal for a launch than the equator from an orbital point of view, but the distance from land still reduces both the risk to densely populated areas like Denmark, and the associated regulatory obstacles. Although nearby countries have plenty of open space from which rockets can safely be launched, von Bengtson calls the regulations governing their cross-border transportation a "wall of pain." Restrictions on rocket transport are understandable from a safety and security standpoint, but they act as a barrier to much-needed innovation in manned space flight. Keep in mind that the average speed of commercial flights has actually decreased since the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003.

Copenhagen Suborbitals’ ocean-based launch may not have been an intentional attempt at seasteading, but their project provides an excellent example of jurisdictional arbitrage, a concept we actively promote at the Institute. We tip our hats to von Bengtson and his team for proving that neither the land nor the sky are the limits to human ingenuity.