What Is Space Law?
Space law is the body of law governing space-related activities, encompassing both international and domestic agreements, rules, and principles. Parameters of space law include space exploration, liability for damage, weapons use, rescue efforts, environmental preservation, information sharing, new technologies, and ethics.
The origins of space law date back to 1919, with international law recognizing each country’s sovereignty over the airspace directly above their territory, later reinforced at the Chicago Convention in 1944. However, this has been made complicated since the invention and implementation of space vehicles and satellites.
Important Space Laws
In 1959, the UN created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, nicknamed COPUOS. COPUOS resulted in the creation of two subcommittees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. The COPUOS Legal Subcommittee has been a primary forum for discussion and negotiation of international agreements relating to outer space.
- The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, includes the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Often called the “Outer Space Treaty”, this treaty forms the basis of Space Law. The treaty prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons in space, limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only, and establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations. Moreover, the treaty says that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body. The only limit on military activities outlined by the Outer Space Treaty is the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.
- The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Called the “Rescue Agreement”, this agreement sets forth rights and obligations of states concerning the rescue of persons in space.
- The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. Called the “Liability Convention”, it states that countries bear international responsibility for all space objects that are launched within their territory. It extends to joint projects in which all participants are considered liable.
- The 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Called the “Registration Convention”, this requires states to furnish to the United Nations with details about the orbit of each space object. A registry of launchings was already being maintained by the United Nations as a result of a General Assembly Resolution in 1962. As a result, UN keeps a registry containing the Name of launching State, an appropriate designator of the space object or its registration number, date and territory or location of launch, Basic orbital parameters, and general function of the space object
- The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Called the “Moon Treaty”, this multilateral treaty that turns jurisdiction of all celestial bodies over to the participant countries. Most space countries have not signed, nor have not ratified the treaty.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted several declarations and legal principles which encourage exercising the international laws, as well as unified communication between countries. The five declarations and principles are:
- The Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space (1963)
This document states, “All space exploration will be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law. No one nation may claim ownership of outer space or any celestial body. Activities carried out in space must abide by the international law and the nations undergoing these said activities must accept responsibility for the governmental or non-governmental agency involved. Objects launched into space are subject to their nation of belonging, including people. Objects, parts, and components discovered outside the jurisdiction of a nation will be returned upon identification. If a nation launches an object into space, they are responsible for any damages that occur internationally.”
- The Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting (1982)
This agreement states that “Activities of this nature must be transpired in accordance with the sovereign rights of States. Said activities should “promote the free dissemination and mutual exchange of information and knowledge in cultural and scientific fields, assist in educational, social and economic development, particularly in the developing countries, enhance the qualities of life of all peoples and provide recreation with due respect to the political and cultural integrity of States.” All States have equal rights to pursue these activities and must maintain responsibility for anything carried out under their boundaries of authority. States planning activities need to contact the Secretary-General of the United Nations with details of the undergoing activities.”
- The Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space (1986)
This agreement describes fifteen principles, which comes from these descriptions given by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Most importantly, the terms remote sensing, primary data, processed data, analyzed information and remote sensing activities are defined.
- The Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space (1992)
This declaration states that states which launch space objects with nuclear power sources on board shall endeavor to protect against radiological hazards.
- The Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States, Taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries (1996)
“States are free to determine all aspects of their participation in international cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space on an equitable and mutually acceptable basis. All States, particularly those with relevant space capabilities and with programmes for the exploration and use of outer space, should contribute to promoting and fostering international cooperation on an equitable and mutually acceptable basis. In this context, particular attention should be given to the benefit for and the interests of developing countries and countries with incipient space programmes stemming from such international cooperation conducted with countries with more advanced space capabilities. International cooperation should be conducted in the modes that are considered most effective and appropriate by the countries concerned, including, inter alia, governmental and non-governmental; commercial and non-commercial; global, multilateral, regional or bilateral; and international cooperation among countries in all levels of development.”
1998 ISS Agreement
This agreement allows the participating nations in the International Space Station to work together in building, maintaining, and utilizing the ISS. The agreement states that NASA is the lead agency in coordinating the member states’ contributions to and activities on the space station, and that each nation has jurisdiction over its own module(s). The agreement goes on to state that the intellectual property of the modules are protected by the owner and provides procedures for criminal prosecution. There is a possibility of this agreement serving a model for future agreements regarding international cooperation in space facilities.
As stated in the Outer Space Treaty, responsibility of regulating space based activities to individual countries or private sectors where in which the activity is taking place. There are issues about how jurisdiction is handled for launches that have different owners and operators than the launch country. Nevertheless, some countries are working to update the laws to meet these new space law issues.
Future Importance Of Space Law
With an increase in commercial space programs and more countries getting involved, space law will be greatly tested. As the costs of spaceflight drop, the field will greatly expand and require more space lawyers. This brings up the issue of the lack of space lawyers and space courts. There are some space lawyers from certain countries, but there is still a lack of centralized certification. One can become a lawyer of space law in the US, but there isn’t necessarily a unified place to try a trial. Nevertheless, there are international courts, but with the lack of clear laws, it will be tough. Moreover, private companies might have different rules and regulations in regards to the treaties that would otherwise restrict countries. There are also concerns about how to keep everyones best interest at heart, in regards to issues such as the militarization of space and keeping space clear. There is a very big need for clearly defined space laws and space laywers.