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At What Height Does Outer Space Begin?

These days, spacecraft are venturing into the final frontier at a record pace. And a deluge of paying space tourists should soon follow. But to earn their astronaut wings, high-flying civilians will have to make it past the so-called Kármán line.
This boundary sits some 100 kilometers above Earth’s surface, and it’s generally accepted as the place where Earth ends and outer space begins.
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From a cosmic point of view, 100 km is a stone’s throw… and is also a limit that falls abundantly within the domain of the gravitational attraction of the Earth and its atmosphere. So, how did humans come to accept this relatively nearby location as the defining line between Earth and space?
The answer is partly based on physical reality and partly based on an arbitrary human construct. That’s why the exact altitude where space begins is something scientists have been debating since before we even sent the first spacecraft into orbit.
Where, exactly, is the edge of space? It depends on who you ask.
With more countries and commercial companies heading into the stratosphere, the debate about how to define outer space is heating up.
Ask someone where outer space is, and they’ll probably point at the sky. It’s up, right? Simple.
Except, no one really knows where “air space” ends and “outer space” begins. That might sound trivial, but defining that boundary could matter for a variety of reasons – including, but not limited to, which high-flying humans get to be designated as astronauts.
Now, with V. Galactic seemingly on the cusp of launching paying passengers onto suborbital trajectories, many people are wondering whether those lucky space tourists will earn their astronaut wings. As of right now, they will, according to U.S. practices.
Is that a problem? “No, I think it’s great!” says NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who in 2002 with the mission STS -109 Columbia contributed to the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Here, we take a look at the ways space is currently defined, the confusion surrounding the demarcation, and what the future might bring.
International treaties define “space” as being free for exploration and use by all, but the same is not true of the sovereign airspace above nations. The laws governing air space and outer space are different; flying a satellite 88 km above China is just fine if space begins at 80 km up, but define the edge at 96 km, and you might find your satellite being treated as an act of military aggression…
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Credits: Ron Miller
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Credits: Nasa/Shutterstock/Storyblocks/Elon Musk/SpaceX/ESA/ESO
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