Archive | September, 2014

Stellar Law, Part I

25 Sep

While working on the first draft of an asteroid miner story about a year and a half ago, I started thinking about the kinds of laws we will need for working, traveling, and living in space. A little bit of research led me to Maritime Law, which governs civilized behavior on Earth’s oceans, particularly once people are outside national coastal waters. Maritime Law, due to its nature, is international law; just as stellar law (off planet, yet within our solar system) should grow to be more than just Earth-based, particularly once people begin to live on Mars, on asteroids, or one of the moons.
So I took the Wikipedia article on Maritime Law and fiddled with it a bit. What follows is the first section of a future encyclopedia description of stellar law:


Stellar Law/Solar Law/Space Law

Stellar Law (also referred to as Solar Law/Space Law) is a distinct body of law which governs space questions and offenses. It is heavily based on Admiralty/Maritime Law. Space law is a body of both domestic law governing space-going activities, and private interstellar law governing the relationships between private entities which operate vessels in outer space. It deals with matters including solar system commerce, navigation, shipping, astronauts and other space workers, and the transportation of passengers and goods through space.

Stellar law also deals with navigational rights, mineral rights, jurisdiction over planetary defense zones and interstellar law governing relationships between planets.

Although each legal jurisdiction usually has its own enacted legislation governing astronomical matters, space law is characterized by a significant amount of interplanetary law developed in recent decades, including numerous multilateral treaties.

Features of stellar law

Maintenance and cure

The doctrine of maintenance and cure is rooted in the Article VI of the Rolls of Oleron promulgated in about 1160 A.D. The obligation to “cure” requires a space vessel owner to provide medical care, free of charge, to a person injured in the service of the vessel, until the person has reached “maximum medical cure”. The concept of “maximum medical cure” is more extensive than the concept “maximum medical improvement”. The obligation to “cure” a person includes the obligation to provide him or her with medications and medical devices which improve his or her ability to function, even if they don’t “improve” his or her actual condition. They may include long-term treatments that permit the person to continue to function well. Common examples include prostheses, wheelchairs, and pain medications.

The obligation of “maintenance” requires a space vessel owner to provide a worker with basic living expenses while convalescing. Once the injured worker is able to work, he or she is expected to maintain himself or herself. Consequently, an injured worker can lose the right to maintenance, while the obligation to provide cure is ongoing.

A vessel worker who is required to sue a vessel owner to recover maintenance and cure may also recover attorney fees. If a vessel owner’s breach of its obligation to provide maintenance and cure is willful and wanton, the vessel owner may be subject to punitive damages.

Personal injuries to passengers

Space vessel owners owe a duty of reasonable care to passengers (for a broad overview of this theory in law, see negligence). Consequently, passengers who are injured aboard space vessels may bring suit as if they had been injured aplanet through the negligence of a third party. The passenger bears the burden of proving that the vessel owner was negligent. While the statute of limitations is generally three years planetside, suits against space owners, including cruise lines must usually be brought within five years to allow for communication difficulties in the depths of space. Most Earth-based space cruise line passenger tickets have provisions requiring that suit to be brought in the Earth city from which the cruise departed.

Stellar liens

Banks which loan money to purchase space vessels, vendors who supply space vessels with necessaries like fuel and stores, vessel workers who are due wages, and many others may have a lien against the vessel to guarantee payment. To enforce the lien, the vessel must be arrested or seized. An action to enforce a lien against a space vessel must be brought in the court of the planet or authority which licensed the vessel.


When property is lost in space and rescued by another, the rescuer is entitled to claim a salvage award on the salved property. There is no “life salvage”. All spacefarers have a duty to save the lives of others in peril without expectation of reward. Consequently salvage law applies only to the saving of property.

There are two types of salvage: contract salvage and pure salvage, which is sometimes referred to as “merit salvage”. In contract salvage the owner of the property and salvor enter into a salvage contract prior to the commencement of salvage operations and the amount that the salvor is paid is determined by the contract. The most common salvage contract is called a “Lloyd’s Open Form Salvage Contract”.

In pure salvage, there is no contract between the owner of the goods and the salvor. The relationship is one which is implied by law. The salvor of property under pure salvage must bring his claim for salvage in court, which will award salvage based upon the “merit” of the service and the value of the salvaged property.

Pure salvage claims are divided into “high-order” and “low-order” salvage. In high-order salvage, the salvor exposes himself/herself and his/her crew to the risk of injury and loss or damage to equipment to salvage the damaged vessel. Examples of high-order salvage are boarding a tumbling vessel in an asteroid field, boarding a vessel which is on fire, raising a vessel from a comet, or towing an uncontrolled vessel out of a gravity well. Low-order salvage occurs where the salvor is exposed to little or no personal risk. Examples of low-order salvage include towing another vessel in “empty” space, supplying a vessel with fuel, or pulling a vessel off a stellar body which has a non-hazardous orbit. Salvors performing high order salvage receive substantially greater salvage award than those performing low order salvage.

In both high-order and low-order salvage, the amount of the salvage award is based first upon the value of the property saved. If nothing is saved, or if additional damage is done, there will be no award. The other factors to be considered are the skills of the salvor, the peril to which the salvaged property was exposed, the value of the property which was risked in effecting the salvage, the amount of time and money expended in the salvage operation etc.

A pure or merit salvage award will seldom exceed 50 percent of the value of the property salved.


Subatomic Weirdness

18 Sep

As a science fiction writer, I feel ashamed to admit that my understanding of quantum physics is murky at best. I realize that even quantum physicists don’t pretend to know all the answers, but still…. So I when I ran across Dolly Setton’s article “Ghosts of the Universe” in Discover (September 2014), I focused in on her sidebar “Neutrino Mysteries: A Guided Tour of Subatomic Weirdness,” with the hope that the author could increase my limited understanding.

Setton summarizes four basic neutrino properties that quantum physicists still struggle with: flavor, mass, antineutrinos (spin), and mirroring.

The first property we don’t fully understand is flavor: electron, muon, and tau. Somehow, neutrinos can change flavor as they travel. Setton explains, “Because neutrinos are quantum particles, and by definition weird, they are not one single flavor at a time, but rather always a mixture of flavors.” She says we can only discern which flavor is dominant in a neutrino’s final moments. When a neutrino collides with another particle, if the collision produces a muon, we can deduce the neutrino was muon-flavored immediately before the collision. If an electron results, the neutrino must have been electron-flavored, and so on.

The second property we don’t understand is neutrino mass. Some neutrinos mass more than others; perhaps mass depends on their mix of flavors at that specific time. Perhaps. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle also creates difficulty: the more precisely we know one property of a subatomic particle, the less precisely we can know another. Flavor and mass are so linked. The more we know a neutrino’s flavor, the less we can know mass. And vice versa.

The third point of weirdness involves neutrinos’ antimatter counterparts. Normally, the antimatter version of a particle (like an electron) is identical to the normal matter version except that it has the opposite charge. My brain struggles a bit with the concept of a positively charged electron (positron), but I can follow the logic. However, because neutrinos are neutral, their antimatter particles can’t have opposite charges. Instead, their spin is reversed. I’m still following. Then Setton explains that neutrinos don’t physically spin like a top or a planet. She says the term “refers to a property that is in some ways equivalent to spin.” She loses me here. I have no idea what that means. Then Setton adds one theorist’s idea that neutrinos may be their own antiparticles, which apparently satisfies one condition for the existence of the universe. Well. That’s as clear as mud to me.

The final point of weirdness involves the mirror effect: a magnetic field will push on an electron and a positron with exactly the same force but in different directions. Physicists hope neutrinos don’t follow this rule, so they are running experiments in Japan and the US to look for asymmetrical behavior to test certain quantum theories. The results may change our ideas about the dawn of time and the big bang.

I think this sidebar summarizes nicely the key issues surrounding our understanding (or lack thereof) of neutrinos and their properties. At least, I understand better what the difficulties are, and I look forward to reading the results of those ongoing particle experiments.

How Do Black Holes Spew?

11 Sep

One fact about black holes has long puzzled me: I’ve read in a number of articles that black holes will from time to time violently discharge a mix of matter and radiation. How is this possible? Once a black hole sucks anything past its event horizon, that material never gets back out. Hence the term black hole – even light can’t get back out.
Yesterday, I found the answer while reading Steve Nadis’ article in September’s Discover magazine: “To the Edge and Back.” The article mainly describes the Event Horizon Telescope currently under development, a fascinating collaboration between astronomers and observatories around the world. The answer to my long-held question about black hole “emissions” comes in the article’s introduction.
It turns out that the “discharged” material never made it past the event horizon. When a black hole encounters more matter than it can consume, all the matter sucked towards the hole by its huge gravitational pull causes an enormous “traffic jam” that keeps most of the matter from actually making it down into the hole. Excess matter keeps piling up, and the pressure grows.
Atoms and small particles grind against each other, heating to billions of degrees. Boyle’s law lays out the relationship between temperature, pressure, and volume. A rapid increase in the first two will force a change in the third. Volume must expand, but it can’t expand into the black hole due to the clog, so it shoots out into space at close to the speed of light.
At least, that’s the theory. If the Event Horizon Telescope project can come together by the time the black hole in the center of our galaxy encounters gas cloud G2 in the next year or so*, we might be able to watch the process happen and learn more about it.


*Yes, I know the actual event happened light years ago, but we don’t get to watch it until a year or so from now when the light from the event reaches Earth.

Heads Up (& Together)!

4 Sep

The Orlando Science Center is hosting the Orlando Maker Faire on September 13 and 14. This faire celebrates do-it-yourselfer scientists and garage tinkerers. Just the pics of featured makers and their works could spark a number of writing ideas. If nothing else, check out the work of featured maker E-Nable, a team of over 800 volunteers who design and 3-D print prosthetic hands for children — for less than $50!

Here’s the link: