Cocnept art for Spaceport Sweden. (c) Spaceport Sweden.

A brief update on happenings in the Arctic from the road.

Spaceport Sweden is planning to develop a launchpad in the northern city of Kiruna to send sub-orbital flights into space. The five-minute flights, which would obtain an altitude of 60 miles, would be for tourism and research.

According to Discovery News, Kiruna’s location is ideal for space travel because there is not a lot of air traffic in the area. What’s more, there are not very people living in or around Kiruna (pop. 18,000) who would be disturbed by the noise of a launch  or endangered by any falling debris should an accident occur. These reasons, however, do not make it clear why Kiruna is a better location than places like Hammerfest or Yellowknife, both of which have low amounts of air traffic and small populations relative to other parts of the planet. Of course, the population density in any city in the Arctic is much higher than the average population density of the circumpolar north, so if population were the only factor, it would make more sense to choose an extremely remote location in northern Canada or Siberia for a launch site.

What the article overlooks as an important factor is the existing aerospace infrastructure that Kiruna already possesses. The city, which got its start as an iron mining town in 1900,  has a large hangar, Arena Arctica. This can fit a Boeing 747. Moreover, Kiruna is home to the Esrange Space Center, which the European Space Re­search Organisation began operating in 1966. 523 rockets have been launched since the center’s inception. High altitude balloons are also frequently launched for scientific projects, and a balloon can travel to Alaska in as few as four days.

Yet according to Discovery News, Kiruna also has a certain geographic advantage for a launchpad. The article claims, “The wide-open spaces within Sweden’s borders also mean no bureaucratic red-tape to be resolved with other countries.” This sentence requires lots of unpacking. Kiruna is indeed smack-dab in the middle of northern Sweden, almost equidistant from both Norway and Finland. However, I’m not sure what the bureaucratic red-tape would be, if any. Vertical sovereignty is a nebulous concept without much grounding in international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that “sovereignty extends to the air space over the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil,” but fails to properly define air space. Suggestions for delimiting air space range from extending it to 19 miles above the earth’s surface, which is the highest that aircraft balloons and airplanes fly, all the way to 99 miles, which is the lowest altitude at which some satellites orbit.

The Arctic certainly has a few outstanding and potential boundary and border disputes, but they are generally restricted to taking place in a two-dimensional space, on land. Were they to extend to the third dimension of air, that would complicate the geopolitics of the Arctic even more. For the time being, most of the potential disputes that could arise would be over continental shelves underlying maritime, landless areas in the Arctic Ocean. Without land, launchpads won’t be built. That doesn’t preclude countries from still being possessive of their air space, even if they are not launching sub-orbital flights. Canada, for instance, has reacted angrily to Russian jets merely coming close to their air space.

It’s interesting to see how the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden and Finland, are developing high-tech industries in their Arctic hinterlands. Last year, for instance, Facebook opened a server farm in Sweden. This move followed in the footsteps of Google, which built one in Finland in 2009. As other countries like Russia and Canada focus on natural resource extraction, the Nordic countries are building their technology sectors up north. This type of investment could ultimately prove to be a more sustainable method of economic development in the Arctic, as it capitalizes on resources that won’t be changing or disappearing rapidly in the near future: cold temperatures and ample space. High-tech industry is also much friendlier for the environment, as it doesn’t risk oil spills or leaking tailings ponds. In fact, high-tech industry can actually make use of abandoned infrastructure once related to natural resource extraction, as Google took over an abandoned paper mill in Finland to build its server farm.

Karin Nilsdotter, the CEO of Spaceport Sweden, remarked, “Sweden is one of the few countries outside the U.S. who can seriously be involved in developing space tourism as a concept. By capitilsing on our heritage and skills in combination with our regulatory and geographical conditions, we can strive towards our vision to become a world leading spaceport and Europe’s gateway to space.” Canada and Russia also have advanced space industries and infrastructure, but their Arctic hinterlands are much less accessible by road or train, making it difficult to get people and supplies to the launchpad in the first place.

Sweden, along with Denmark and Finland, is already Europe’s gateway to the Arctic. If Spaceport Sweden really comes to fruition, it can be a new type of northern gateway, one going to outer space. Let’s just try not to confuse this with the other Northern Gateway project, in Canada.

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