What is Ungoverned Space?Ungoverned space is any area that is not under the control (whether enforced or not) of a sovereign state. In most stable countries, all land is either private or government land. But in most cases, even private land is only 'under control' with the backing of the state. If someone trespasses on your land, you call the police, the enforcers of the Law. What, though, happens in an area where the Law is not able to be enforced? Private citizens can only enforce their will until they are countered by a superior force. In unstable countries, there is a greater likelihood of ungoverned or under-governed space, either because of insufficient government capability for law enforcement, or because a non-state force resists the state's control.
On land, the phenomenon of UGS is uncommon, except in small or remote areas, or in states where the central government is very weak. Parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mali are ungoverned, and even some of the areas under government control are so only with outside assistance (the US and France in these cases).
But what about at sea? By long custom and some international treaties, every state owns the sea along its coastline, out to a certain distance, just as it does its land territory. UN conventions draw the line at 12 nautical miles (about 14 statute miles) for a state's exclusive control. Beyond 12 out to 24 nm (28 mi), a state can enforce local customs and regulations, and out to 200 nm (230 mi) a state can claim all economic resources recoverable from that zone. As most people know, about 70% of the Earth is covered in water, so there is still lots of ocean beyond any state's reach. All of these sea ways are ungoverned space. The Janes' article discusses the difficulty in policing UGS and countering criminal and terrorist groups operating on the open sea. It's hard to live out at sea over the long term, but sea lanes are means of travel and transport of people and material. Piracy and smuggling are continuous if low intensity problems.
Ungoverned Space - in Space
So this article got me to thinking – on a Traveller subsector map, each hex represents one inhabited planet, but in a larger sense it represents an entire solar system. This is the UGS problem writ large: a solar system is a staggeringly huge area with multiple astronomical bodies to hide on or behind. Worse, the objects in a solar system are in motion, so their relative positions are constantly changing.
What is the effective range of a government's control in a Traveller setting? Maybe there are interstellar treaties in place indicating how far the main-world's reach is from its own orbit. Maybe some governments claim the entire solar system, or only the near-orbital space around the home world? Multi-planet governments will likely want to claim more space, to protect their commerce, while single-planet (Independent) states claim less, recognizing the limits of their enforcement ability.
A lot will depend on the population and tech level of the main world, because these are the major factors in determining a planet's Naval budget (see Adventure 5, Trillion Credit Squadron). At the very least, a planet with any naval forces at all will patrol the space surrounding the main world.
In the Official Traveller Universe, The Navy is characterized as being the agency of enforcing the Law of the Imperium. But the Navy can't be everywhere. Sure, in space line of sight is effectively without limit, but that is not the same as being able to enforce the law or apprehend lawless groups. Just because you can detect a ship on your scopes, does not mean you can intercept and apprehend said ship. It may be several light-minutes away, and can see you coming.
Still lots of Frontier in My Traveller UniverseIn my Traveller universe, where there is no monolithic Imperium, and populations are mostly in the tens of millions or less, naval forces are very limited in size. The Talaveran Empire, with the largest military in my TU, has a TCS budget of 1.6 trillion credits. So it is likely that the Talavera system will be extensively patrolled, but the outlying Winter system may only have patrols near the inhabited planets. In the region known as the Wilds, there is only 19 billion credits worth of Navy budget to spread among twenty-plus planets.
So, in a system that is under-funded or under-developed technologically, there could be a dozen or more planets and moons that could support a settlement with sealed or open habitations, that could go unnoticed or uncontrolled by the main-world government. Planets are large things, so it would be very easy to overlook a settlement, especially one of only a few thousand people. People who are interested in conducting illegal activities will likely seek out solar systems with lots of UGS. It should be a simple matter for the referee to tell which systems are likely to have at lot of UGS and which will not.
For further complexity, consider that even if a planet's government has the capability to patrol all of the inhabitable bodies in its system, they might choose not to. In David Weber's Honor Harrington novel Honor Among Enemies, the title character captains a warship disguised as a merchantman in a region of space with a lot of UGS, and finds that many of the local system governments not only tolerate pirates in their systems, but actively do business with them, and give them legal cover to operate.
The political issues involved in sending the Navy into your neighbor's sovereign space can open up avenues for adventure – mercenaries can be hired to locate or clean out pirate or smuggler's bases; adventurers can be hired to be or locate an expedition or survey team; separatist movements and terror groups can hide out in the UGS of a system with many reasons why someone would want to find them. As opposed to sending in the Navy and Marines, PC groups can be denied if things go awry and the local government discovers what's being done in their sovereign space. In my TU, I have only begun to explore the possibilities for adventure in patrolling and exploring all the UGS available.