Space vs Edge of Space: Businessman Richard Branson officially kicked off space tourism when he reached the edge of space on Sunday, beating Jeff Bezos to it. While the achievement is significant for the commercialisation of space travel, it has experts and space enthusiasts debating about whether he actually reached enough height for it to be termed as his going to “space”. According to a report in IE, the boundary of space is most commonly accepted to be the Karman Line at 100 kms above sea level. However, the US uses 80 kms above sea level as the cut off point, and Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight attained a height of 86 kms.
Meanwhile, billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin flight is planning to reach a height of 106 kms, the report added.
The Karman Line has largely been compared to the international waters where the rule of countries and human laws end, and aerospace pioneer Theodore von Karman, after whom the line is named, had said that this line marked where the aerodynamics ended and the aeronautics began. Karman also added that below the line, the countries had control over the space, but above that, the space was free.
Back in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty was signed, as per which it was decided that space should be made accessible to all countries for free scientific investigation, and in order to avoid disputes, it was decided that a legal boundary needed to be defined. However, some countries along with the US believe that such a delimiting of outer space is not necessary. But experts have said that defining what space truly is is more important now because more and more companies are looking at carrying out commercial space expeditions, and for this, these companies would want legal certainty which would be provided by a defined altitude or limit.
Understanding where the atmosphere ends and what can be called space is tricky.
After Branson’s flight, popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson said that he did not believe that his flight could be termed as space travel, and added that a similar sub-orbital flight had been carried out by US space agency NASA about six decades ago.
Back in 2009, University of Calgary researchers had measured Earth’s atmosphere winds and charged particles’ flow, and wrote that the space’s edge began 118 kms above the sea level. On the other hand, in 2018, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Jonathan C McDowell said that the Karman Line was a chosen as a nice round figure but studies from a physical aspect were also needed, and he proposed that based on the study of different atmospheric layers, 80 kms above sea level was the more appropriate boundary.
While there is still confusion regarding whether Branson went to space or to edge of space, largely people agree to the fact that he can be termed as an astronaut, as accepted by former commander of ISS Terry Virts who spent over 213 days in orbit and by NASA astronaut Mike Massimino.