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'Space nation' to Earthlings: Do you read us?

As a self-proclaimed "space kingdom" that exists solely in a tiny satellite gets ready to communicate with Earth, Asgardia's leader talks about the birth of a nation in a box.

NASA

Later this week, Earth will communicate for the first time with a nation based solely in space. If you consider a tiny cubesat about the size of a toaster to be a nation, that is. 

The small satellite goes by the name Asgardia-1 and makes up the entirety of the territory of the virtual nation of Asgardia, the pet project of Russian/Azerbaijani scientist and businessman Igor Ashurbeyli, an entrepreneur and investor with a Ph.D. in engineering. In his mind, Asgardia planted its flag in space when it launched from NASA's Wallops Island last month aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

"From a legal standpoint, the satellite is the first sovereign territory of Asgardia nation," Ashurbeyli told me over the phone via a translator. 

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Rendering of Asgardia-1

Asgardia

There's actually some debate about the law's take on calling an unpopulated satellite a nation. More on that later. But if you can call Asgardia a nation, it's probably the first one to begin its existence essentially in storage, waiting to be unpacked.

The Cygnus spacecraft has been docked with the International Space Station for the past few weeks while the ISS crew unloaded a shipment of supplies from it, but it will finally disconnect on Wednesday. At that point it will ascend to a higher altitude to perform the last part of its mission: deploying over a dozen small satellites including Asgardia-1 on Dec. 7. 

The digital nation in a box will then begin orbiting Earth, and when it starts transmitting about 30 minutes later, the self-proclaimed "space kingdom" will be the first off-earth territory to be officially open for business.

Asgardia is an unusual diplomatic, legal and philosophical experiment. For now, anyone can become a citizen by simply signing up online and agreeing to accept the official constitution, which adopts an official policy of pacifism and gives Ashurbeyli the first term as "Head of Nation," among other things.

He explains that each Asgardian citizen is also entitled to up to 300 kilobytes of storage on Asgardia-1. Asgardians are encouraged to upload photos, personal documents and other digital trinkets to establish their virtual residency in space.

The whole thing may sound like a gimmick at first blush, but Ashurbeyli sees Asgardia-1 as a small first step toward a far more grand vision that includes Asgardians physically living in space.

"It will eventually happen when the space arks or space settlements are in place, but the idea (today) is people can live wherever they choose," Ashurbeyli said. "So they can continue living in the country of their Earthly residence and at the same time be citizens of Asgardia."  

The nanoscientist turned space enthusiast talks matter-of-factly and at length about his plans that literally take the notion of "pie in the sky" to a completely new altitude, one also populated by space dreamers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Ashurbeyli says the full technical concept and future plans for Asgardia's orbital infrastructure -- including a series of satellites following Asgardia-1, the possibility of space stations or "arks" and perhaps even outposts on the moon and beyond -- will be made public in the first half of 2018.

Protection from above

A key part of Asgardia's mission is to protect Earth from space threats like hazardous asteroids, manmade space debris and solar flares. Ashurbeyli explains that he sees this as a responsibility better tackled by a nation with a more global citizenship.

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Igor Ashurbeyli, founder of "space kingdom" Asgardia.

Asgardia

 "National space agencies (on Earth) seem to be somewhat selfish in the way they handle their business," he told me. "We would like to ensure the protection of Earth as a whole."  

That doesn't mean Asgardia shuns collaboration with those space agencies, though. NASA is sponsoring another of Asgardia-1's missions, an experiment to study the impacts of space radiation on data storage

Don't expect to see Asgardia recognized by many other nations or international organizations the moment Asgardia-1 makes its first transmission on Thursday. The notion that what's essentially an orbiting file server constitutes a new nation is probably going to be a hard sell, according to Joanne Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law.

"Currently at international law, a state has these characteristics: a permanent population; a defined territory; a government; the capacity to enter into relations with other states; and, it must be recognized as a state by other states," she said via email. "So the premise that Asgardia is, or will be, a 'nation' is highly debatable as a matter of law."

Similar sovereignty experiments including the offshore Principality of Sealand have failed to be recognized, as another space law expert, Michael Listner, noted when Asgardia was first announced last year.  

But Ashurbeyli still argues Asgardia has all the necessary attributes to be considered a sovereign nation. 

"(Asgardia has) territory, population, a constitution, flag, anthem, coat of arms and currency," he said. "Parliamentary elections are now in process, and a government will be coming together soon."

The language of government

Parliamentary elections are indeed taking place via Asgardia's website. Interestingly, seats in parliament are determined not by terrestrial geography, but by language. The top 12 languages spoken among Asgardians are assigned seats out of 150 total available based upon the total population that chose that language in their profiles. So right now, 71 members of parliament will come from and be elected by the pool of English-speaking Asgardians, followed by 15 Chinese-speaking MPs, 15 Spanish, 13 Turkish, 7 Italian and so on. There are also currently 10 spots held open for citizens who do not speak one of the top 12 languages.

At the moment, Chinese-speaking parliament seats are basically open for the taking as there are more seats available than candidates. 

To make the whole endeavor even more official, Ashurbeyli says there are plans to issue ID cards and passports to citizens and to open offices on most continents.

In fact, the incoming leader of Asgardia says he's convinced some nations will be ready to recognize the space kingdom and sign bilateral agreements to that effect.

"We're sure there will be a number of nations that will be interested in signing such bilateral agreements with Asgardia, recognizing it as a sovereign nation. In fact, these agreements will be included in our application package to the United Nations."  

He hopes to have a package making Asgardia's case for statehood ready to pitch to the UN by June.

For now, though, Asgardia remains mostly a digital dream with a showbox-size server orbiting overhead. So far most, if not all, of its funding has come from Ashurbeyli himself or other undisclosed sources. Asgardia does have a for-profit arm that citizens of Earth can invest in to fund space-technology-related startups, and eventually the country could bring in revenue from taxes, fees, a digital currency and fundraising.

But until the initial parliament comes together, Asgardia's founder says now is a somewhat tentative time for the fledgling nation.

"If I disappear tomorrow it will be really devastating and very bad. However, if it happens after the parliamentary elections are over, it will not be as bad because the parliament will be in place and able to approve the budget for 2018 (and elect a new leader)," Ashurbeyli said. "In other words I have to last a month."  

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