It’s not every day that a sitting governor calls for his state to launch its own satellites, but that’s exactly what California Governor Jerry Brown said Thursday. Amidst threats from President-elect Donald Trump’s advisors that the incoming administration would seek to defund NASA’s Earth science research — much of which is directly tied to studying climate change. The outspoken Brown has been pretty vocal about using his position to fight any cuts a Trump administration would make to federally funded environmental research.
This defiance was on stage at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting recently in San Francisco, where Brown declared: “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight. We’re ready to defend.”
Then he took things one step further. “And, if Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite. We’re going to collect that data.”
There’s no question Brown is going to turn California into a bastion of resistance against many of Trump’s policies, but that last remark begs these questions: Can California really launch its own satellites into space? And if so, is this simply the prelude to a state-run space agency? Will Jerry Brown create a California Space Agency?
Of course, there’s no federal law that can stop California from launching its own fleet of satellites into orbit. Matthew Schaefer, a space law professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, says it would be a similar process to the way companies are able to launch satellites of their own into orbit.
In fact, Schaefer thinks if California wanted to pursue such an initiative, it would likely need to work directly with private companies to make it happen. “California would contract a manufacturer to develop and build the satellite,” he says. “Then they would contract a private company, like SpaceX. That private company would be responsible for acquiring a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.”
That should be no problem. The state already hosts a very active presence from the space community. Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Boeing, and others are all located to some extent in California. The Mojave Air and Space Port and California Spaceport are both options for conducting launches from.
The difference here, however, is that if California was seeking to replace NASA’s Earth science instruments, it would almost certainly be launching remote sensing equipment. This means the government of California would need to acquire a remote sensing license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a license from the Federal Communications Commissions to relay communications over the EM spectrum. But those licenses also wouldn’t be very difficult to garner.
As long as California is complying with security regulations, “There’s nothing to prevent private companies or states from operating remote sensing satellites.”
Schaefer also emphasizes that for a state to launch its own satellites would not actually be a groundbreaking move. Many research institutions and public universities around the country have launched and operated satellites, and because these are state-run entities, the satellites fall under state oversight. “The activity itself — the state procuring or building a satellite, and then launching it — is not a unique event,” he says. For California to launch its own satellites would really just be cutting out the academia pipeline in favor of more direct approach.
That doesn’t mean this would be a normal thing to do. Brown’s idea, should it ever manifest, “is novel, in the sense of scale and capability,” says Schaefer. Launching a series of remote sensing satellites that would essentially replace the state-of-the-art instruments NASA currently uses would pose its own array of technological and financial challenges. “These things aren’t cheap to run,” he says. And the state is $400 billion in debt. But, considering California boasts the fifth or sixth largest economy of the world (by some estimates), they would be in a better position than any other state to execute such a feat. The rise in cubesats might mean the state can develop remote effective remote sensing equipment for much less than what NASA invests.
Nevertheless, “from a legal point of view,” says Schaefer, “there shouldn’t be a problem.”
So if Brown and his government are serious about such a significant space program, shouldn’t California just start its own space agency?
Well, it actually could. The precursor for such an agency is a space authority, which Schaefer explains is designed to focus on encouraging spaceport infrastructure, and attracting attention and investment from the space industry around the country. Several states have one — California actually did from 1996 to 2011. A state agency would basically be tasked not just with coordinating such activities, but running its own missions and operations as well.
No matter what, California would be expected to adhere to all four of the major international space treaties the U.S. has signed. In reality, under an international perspective, California is simply “a non-visible entity — it is, for those purposes, just a part of the U.S.,” says Frans G. von der Dunk, another space law expert at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “The U.S. is therefore responsible and liable for any relevant categories of U.S.-based space activities, which would include hypothetical ones of any administrative unit within the country.”
“Whether California wants to launch satellites or start a space agency, from the standpoint of international space law [it is] not something that is principally impossible.”
Of course, if California is serious about its threat to secede, it certainly won’t have to worry about falling in step with U.S. rules and regulations. The California Space Agency would be free to pursue whatever kind of space operations it chooses to.