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12 September 2016

Space Law and Space Exploration

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Nations reserve the right to draw up laws and apply coercive mechanisms to ensure that said laws are observed within their territory. Sometimes they delegate this task to supra-national entities (such as the European Union) or sign agreements with other states to transfer certain regulatory capacities. The seas are also regulated since the state-claimed zones are expanding under the latest agreements which have been signed in the context of the United Nations. But what about space? Who does the Moon and other celestial bodies belong to? Can you sell a plot of land on Mars?

The foundations of Space Law

Once space exploration was launched by the Soviet Union (1957) and the USA (1958) and these two superpowers started to compete, it became clear that their activities needed to be regulated. This was achieved almost 10 years later with the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS), which was created by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1959. Its legal subcommittee has drawn up the international space law.

Out of the regulations that have been established since then, the most important piece of legislation is the Outer Space Treaty (OST). In force since 1967, it has been ratified by 103 states.

The treaty stipulates that all activities must: be governed by International Law; provide free access to space with no interference from other states and to celestial bodies, which must not be claimed by any state or individual; only peaceful activities may be carried out; national governments are responsible for the activities of their enterprises; no contamination must take place; and all objects launched into space must be registered.

Consequently, it is understood that outer space and any celestial bodies in addition to our planet are the joint property of all of Humanity. As such, they must not be claimed as property and they must not be sold.

The Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to this law. Here are some relevant passages:

“The Purposes of the United Nations are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.”

“…a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Liability in space

The U.N. Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space contains more than 7,000 objects. There are currently more than 1,000 artificial satellites around our planet. There are also many inactive satellites (about 2,600) and a lot of waste. In many cases, this waste is derived from space launches but most resulted from crashes between satellites.

The large number of objects in space and the large amount of “space debris” involves some risk. For example, Sky Lab (a predecessor of the International Space Station, ISS) finally fell on Australia in 1979. Even though there were no property or personal damages, Australia applied a 400-dollar fine to NASA for throwing out trash… And this has not been the only time a satellite has fallen on land or the sea. Liability for the damages falls on the country where the companies that own the objects are registered, since the respective state needs to approve the activities of its non-governmental entities and its citizens. To name an example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the start of activities that may lead to mineral extraction on the Moon. This approval is based on a regulation by the U.S. Senate which permits American citizens to extract natural resources on celestial bodies. It is not clear whether this regulation is legal under the various international agreements.

In any case, damages caused by “space debris” are not covered by the treaties that have been signed under the umbrella of the United Nations.

At all events, each state holds jurisdiction over any space craft that it registers, including manned craft. This detail is important to be able to determine which court is competent in the event of an offense in space.

As a result, space contamination due to debris must be minimized and celestial bodies must be protected, especially bodies that may contain biological activity. Likewise, the Earth must be protected against the introduction of alien biological matter.

Figure 1: Different types of orbits around the Earth.

Orbits around space: a resource in short supply

The space around our planet houses several objects with very different missions: astronomic, climate and geological research; telecommunications and navigation; military use; weather control; and missions connected to human activities such as the ISS.

Additionally, not all orbits are as useful. The most important orbit is the geostationary orbit. This is a circular orbit 35,786 kilometers (22,236 mi) above the Earth’s equator; the satellite seems to be “fixed” in relation to a point on the Earth’s surface and, as such, this type of orbit is ideal for communication satellites or any other type of surveillance satellites.

This means that the orbit is in short supply since satellites need to be some distance apart to avoid interferences. Therefore, it is necessary to achieve the necessary coordination for ensuring that any country can access this type of orbit.

“Non-peaceful” use

Albeit the Outer Space Treaty establishes peaceful activities as its purpose, it permits the performance of military activities – with several limitations. Firstly, it is prohibited to deploy any mass destruction weapon in space, including nuclear weapons. Any other type of weapon may be transported to space; any defensive or non-aggressive activity is also allowed. However, no weapon may be stationed on a celestial body, including the Moon, where no military bases may be set up either.

In short, space is an asset shared by the whole of Humanity and international cooperation is essential to manage it. It can be used for commercial activities; in fact, we all benefit from fast communications and disaster prevention and mitigation. However, just like our planet, it also belongs to future generations and must be looked after accordingly.

David Barrado

Astrobiology Center (INTA-CSIC)


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