The geostationary orbit: a critical legal geography of space’s most valuable real estate

Collis, Christy ORCID: (2009) The geostationary orbit: a critical legal geography of space’s most valuable real estate. Sociological Review, 57 (1). pp. 47-65. ISSN 0038-0261


This chapter begins 35,786 km above the Earth's equator, where a satellite drifts eastward at 11,100 km per hour. The satellite receives information from Earth and bounces it back. The satellite is an average one: about 3.8 meters high, and, with its solar panel ‘wings’ extended, about 26 meters wide. It weighs 1,727 kilograms, including its fuel, which it will use to maintain its precise orbital position over the course of its operational lifespan of about 15 years (Boeing, 2001). Two aspects of this satellite make it particularly important, neither of which has to do with the satellite itself. Its importance rests instead on its location, its geography. At this precise height over the equator, the satellite moves at exactly the same speed as the Earth beneath it: it forever stays in the sky above a single fixed point on the Earth. Second, because it is above the equator, the satellite can ‘see’ 42 per cent of the Earth's surface at once, from 81 degrees north to 81 degrees south (Kelso, 1998: 76). What is called its terrestrial footprint is larger than that which could be achieved by a satellite in any other orbit around the Earth. As such, it's a particularly powerful communications tool: the receiving stations on Earth below it do not need to be adjusted or calibrated because the satellite never moves from its position above them, and its data can be broadcast to 40 per cent of the Earth's surface at once. What makes this satellite so powerful, and so valuable, is that it is located in the geostationary orbit (GEO):1 the single orbital belt, 35,786 km above the equator and a relatively miniscule 30 km wide, in which satellites orbit at the same speed as the ground below them. Because of its special properties, the GEO is Space's2 most valuable position. With a satellite in GEO, a communications provider does not have to pay the massive costs associated with maintaining several satellites to provide full-time coverage, or construct multiple Earth stations or moving receivers. With only three satellites in GEO, a communications provider can cover almost the entire Earth. For satellites, which currently carry much of the world's communication data, as well as its navigation and meteorological information, the GEO is the place to be. But, as the above citations of the GEO's size indicate, the GEO is not infinite: satellites have to be positioned apart from each other so that they don't interfere with each others' transmissions; they are strung along the GEO's thin belt ‘like pearls on a string’ (Wiessner, 1983: 225). Only so many pearls can fit on a string, particularly when they have to be spaced at prescribed intervals. This chapter addresses two key questions about the valuable GEO: who, if anyone, owns it; and what kind of a cultural space is it?

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Files associated with this item cannot be displayed due to copyright restrictions.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: No Faculty
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: No Faculty
Date Deposited: 03 Jun 2022 00:40
Last Modified: 03 Jun 2022 00:40
Uncontrolled Keywords: Outer Space; spae law; cultural geography
Fields of Research (2020): 44 HUMAN SOCIETY > 4406 Human geography > 440601 Cultural geography
Socio-Economic Objectives (2020): 22 INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION SERVICES > 2201 Communication technologies, systems and services > 220106 Satellite technologies, networks and services
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