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So, I know people in the space station need a HAM radio license for operation.

How Far exactly from earth do you have to be to transmit any RF wave you want without a license?

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Strictly speaking, there are 3 categories of allocations for space missions, depending on what you are doing. And the laws never go away, although the enforcement might go away after a distance. The 3 categories are:

  • Near Earth Communication- I can't find a specific definition, but this appears to be anything closer than the moon, or that orbits the moon. This does include Geostationary satellites.
  • Deep Space Communication- For two way communication in deep space.
  • Sensors in deep space- These frequencies can be used for sensors in deep space, but should not be used for communication with Earth.

Bottom line is, only the ability to enforce law allows one to get away from the international law concerning spectrum allocation. If you plan on communicating with Earth, either one or two way, you are subject to the laws of the location where you are talking with, which follows ITU law. There are looser restrictions if you never plan on communicating with Earth, however, and these probably won't be enforced.

In the United States, the FCC requires the following (25.113 g)

(g) Except as set forth in paragraph (h) of this section, a launch authorization and station license (i.e., operating authority) must be applied for and granted before a space station may be launched and
operated in orbit. Request for launch authorization may be included in an application for space station license.

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  • $\begingroup$ This all seems rather unsubstantiated to me. Do you have any sources you could add to your post? Its not like the USA/FCC owns all dimensional space perpendicular to US soil :-) There must be some elevation after which it is not your nation and becomes outer space and then some international agreement to co-operate so various countries can have satellites in space without disturbance. And certainly in deep space there would be nothing more than friendly co-operation and respect for each other (FCC has no control whatsoever). So I believe the laws do "go away" contrary to your statement. $\endgroup$ – BenSwayne Feb 5 '14 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ The FCC laws mirror those of the ITU, as do every country on Earth. Essentially, if you are never going to communicate with Earth, or have Earth communicate with you, it falls under the sensor category, otherwise it falls under ITU laws. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Feb 5 '14 at 0:24
  • $\begingroup$ This question was explicitly requesting the vertical boundary of FCC jurisdiction (not international). But even if you were to idealistically refer to the entire world as unified on spectrum management, humans do not own or control the entire universe. There will be some distance where nation based spectrum management is no longer reasonable, appropriate, or enforceable and it appears that by consensus this is between 30 km and 160 km above earth. See answer below. $\endgroup$ – BenSwayne Feb 5 '14 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ @BenSwayne Think back not long ago when humans (Europeans) did not control the entire Earth. All you had to do was sail someplace new, whip out a flag, and say, "mine!" Then it was yours. Certainly the people already there probably had something to say about it, that didn't stop anything. It's the same with space: until we discover other life able to defend their territory or some nation establishes a space presence and claims sovereignty, every nation can make absurd claims (like owning all the airspace to infinity), and get away with it. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Feb 5 '14 at 12:18
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I believe there is a limit to the elevation for which any nation can claim control over and such enforce its laws. A bit of searching led me to find that the exact elevation is not really agreed upon between nations but is between 30 km (19 mi) - 160 km (99 mi) above sea level.

There is no international agreement on the vertical extent of sovereign airspace (the boundary between outer space—which is not subject to national jurisdiction—and national airspace), with suggestions ranging from about 30 km (19 mi) (the extent of the highest aircraft and balloons) to about 160 km (99 mi) (the lowest extent of short-term stable orbits). The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has established the Kármán line, at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi), as the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and the outer space, while the United States considers anyone who has flown above 50 miles (80 km) to be an astronaut; indeed descending space shuttles have flown closer than 80 km (50 mi) over other nations, such as Canada, without requesting permission first.1 Nonetheless both the Kármán line and the U.S. definition are merely working benchmarks, without any real legal authority over matters of national sovereignty.

Taken from the Wikipedia Entry for Airspace

I think after a certain point respect for other's nations operating in space would be required.

However it is worth noting that the consensus is that you would be subject to airspace over the US for any altitude at which aircraft or balloons can fly. So pretty much any regular amateur activity you can think of (weather balloons or telemetry) will be subject to the laws of the airspace for the country in which you are operating.

If you have the funds to personally launch satellites or space probes and really wanted to transmit out of band or intentionally interfere with some other equipment, I'm sure there is not much that can be done outside of friendly negotiation (or perhaps you might find your personal space probe mysteriously destroyed without explanation).

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  • $\begingroup$ For the record, you are unable to launch a satellite in the United States without a FCC license to communicate with said satellite. Similar laws exist from every country which has the capability to launch something into orbit, so far as I know. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Feb 5 '14 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ You seem to forget that although a satellite might be safely out of reach, the person who launched it is not. It would be rather hard to launch a satellite without anyone noticing: launched commercially, the owner would have provided a name; launching with personal equipment will attract the attention of militaries all over the world. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Feb 5 '14 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ @PhilFrost I was implying your thoughts exactly with some implied humour in the last line "or perhaps you might find your personal space probe mysteriously destroyed without explanation" (implying military intervention shooting it out of the sky). This question is academic at best, that last paragraph was more a thought experiment than practical. I think within the scope of amateur activities we've established that at all elevations at which crafts can fly, model rockets, weather balloons, etc you will be subject to the spectrum management licensing and constraints in your country. $\endgroup$ – BenSwayne Feb 5 '14 at 16:44

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