Space Law Decoded
All you need to know about how peace and order is kept in outer space
The topic of space law flows into several grey areas that stump even the most seasoned of professionals in the field. Are there set laws that govern the space realm? Who has intellectual property (IP) rights in outer space? Does any one country have more jurisdiction than the other? Is it the Wild West up there where anything and everything goes?
The short answer to the above is that the arena is likened to a global commons, a realm of shared ownership such as the high seas, our overall atmosphere and the Antarctic. This basically means that every participating party or nation is responsible to cooperate in maintaining the landscape for the good of present and future civilisations.
Five treaties to maintain peace and order
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) has five treaties in place that create parameters and boundaries to guide the industry forward.
- The first of these treaties, and perhaps the most well known of them among industry experts is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This basically presents principles for space exploration and operation, stating such terms as no nation can own space, the Moon or any other celestial body. Other terms of the treaty can be accessed here.
- The second treaty is the Rescue Agreement that outlines the obligations for any party that becomes aware that the personnel of a spacecraft are in danger. This means that if any participant in the space industry becomes aware that the personnel of a spacecraft are in distress, they must notify the launching authority and the Secretary General of the United Nations.
- The third treaty is the Liability Convention that establishes regulations for any damage in outer space. This was the treaty that was referred to when the Soviet Union was penalised after one of its nuclear-powered satellites crashed in Canada in 1978.
- UNCOPUOS has also established a fourth treaty named the Registration Convention that empowers the UN Secretary-General to maintain a register of all space objects.
- Last, but not least, is the Moon Agreement that requires all exploration and use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to be the province of all mankind, carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries. This basically means that the Moon should be used for the benefit of all states and all members within the international community.
Intellectual property laws in outer space
It should be noted that several of the space treaties mentioned above were penned at a time when space exploration was still largely government driven. Since the landscape today has opened up considerably to private enterprise, many smaller businesses are concerned about their IP rights. It should be noted that the fundamentals of those treaties stay the same in this day and age.
The Outer Space Treaty states that the national laws of the state in which a particular space object is registered in extends to the object. It also states that the country of registry retains jurisdiction and control over the space object and over any personnel thereof unless otherwise agreed among the launching States.
This means that if a satellite is launched from Country A, or if a company from Country A purchases a launch, the satellite can be registered to Country A, and Country A’s (IP) laws will apply to the satellite.
Legal implementation an uphill task
Although seen largely as positive frameworks to regulate space travel, the space treaties in place have at times proven to be more effective in theory than when it comes to their implementation.
Take the issue of space junk, for example, where damage caused by debris floating around in outer space is not covered explicitly by the five treaties. Establishing the causality of damage caused by space debris has also proven to be a challenge — it is often difficult to identify particulate debris and trace it back to the owner of the original launched object. This can become quite an issue of contention, seeing that there are [hyperlink to space junk blog] 34,000 debris objects in orbit that are larger than 10cm in size!Another example of where space law tends to remain ambiguous is when it comes to the militarisation of the industry. Although the Outer Space Treaty deems that space should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, there is no prohibition on setting up military bases, conducting weapons testing, or bringing weapons into outer space. Opponents, however, feel that the construction of military bases in outer space could lead to war in the future and that legalities surrounding the issue should be made clear to maintain peace in outer space.
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