by Elizabeth Howell
July 15, 2016
plans to send swarms
of robotic spacecraft
to mine resources
from near-Earth asteroids,
as this artist's
Credit: Planetary Resources
Because space is an area without defined
boundaries, there are many questions about legal jurisdiction on
spacecraft orbiting Earth and other celestial bodies.
nations have agreed to a variety of policies and treaties that
concern activities in space exploration.
As soon as humans reached for the stars, some reached for the law
books. In the year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957,
the United Nations General Assembly created an ad hoc Committee on
the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS).
In 1960, the International Institute of
Space Law (IISL), a nongovernmental organization, was created to promote
international cooperation in the space law-making process. Today,
several universities worldwide offer programs and degrees in space
The field of space law evolved to deal with questions such as
property rights, weapons in space, protection of astronauts and
However, space law remains a challenging
field to define. While there are treaties that have been voluntarily
signed by many nations, technological advances mean that private
companies can now take part in space exploration, and these entities
may not be covered under some existing treaties (depending on one's
legal interpretation of them).
Also, national priorities change over
time, and those priorities may not be reflected in treaties that
were created decades ago.
The United Nations and the Outer Space Treaty
COPUOUS was established in 1958 and made permanent in 1959.
As of mid-2016, it has 77 members,
including major space-faring nations such as,
The United Nations
describes this committee as the "focal point" where
international entities negotiate how to use space peacefully.
COPUOUS' duties include exchanging
information about space, keeping tabs on what government and
nongovernmental organizations do in space, and promoting
COPUOUS also formed two subcommittees in
1962 to deal with legal issues, and scientific and technical
developments; secretariat services are provided by the United
Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
COPUOUS is the force behind five
treaties and five principles that govern much of space exploration.
The fundamental treaty is the Treaty on
Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and
Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,
or simply the "Outer
It was ratified in 1967, largely based
on a set of legal principles the general assembly accepted in 1962.
treaty has several major points to it. Some of the principal ones
Space is free for all nations to
explore, and sovereign claims cannot be made. Space
activities must be for the benefit of all nations and
humans. (So, nobody owns the moon.)
Nuclear weapons and other
weapons of mass destruction are not allowed in Earth orbit,
on celestial bodies or in other outer-space locations. (In
other words, peace is the only acceptable use of outer-space
Individual nations (states) are
responsible for any damage their space objects cause.
Individual nations are also responsible for all governmental
and nongovernmental activities conducted by their citizens.
These states must also "avoid harmful contamination" due to
Treaties, principles and
To support the Outer Space Treaty,
four other treaties were put into place in the 1960s and 1970s to
support peaceful space exploration.
These treaties (referred to
below by their nicknames) are:
The "Rescue Agreement" (1968), formed to give astronauts
assistance during an unintended landing or when they are
facing an emergency.
States are told they,
The "Liability Convention"
(1972) outlines considerations if a space object causes
damage or loss to human life. Its first article says,
The "Registration Convention"
(1975), drawn up to help nations keep track of all objects
launched into outer space.
This United Nations registry is
important for matters such as avoiding space debris. (For
NASA, the United States Strategic Command gives real-time
updates to the agency if space debris threatens a spacecraft
or the International Space Station.)
The "Moon Agreement"
(1979), which gives more detail on the Outer Space Treaty
for property rights and usage of the moon and other
celestial bodies in the solar system (except for objects
that naturally enter the Earth from these bodies, namely,
This treaty, however, has
been signed by 16 nations, all of which are minor
players in space exploration.
COPUOUS has also created five sets of
principles to support these treaties.
of Legal Principles" (1963), from which the Outer Space
Treaty was created in 1967, lays down guiding principles,
including the idea that space exploration is for the benefit
of all humans.
Principles" (1982) has to do with television broadcast
signals. These principles include the idea of
noninterference with other countries' signals, the provision
of information to help with knowledge exchange, and the
promotion of educational and social development
(particularly in developing nations).
Sensing Principles" (1986) concerns the use of
electromagnetic waves to collect data on Earth's natural
resources. Remote-sensing activities are supposed to be for
all countries' benefit and should be carried out in the
spirit of international cooperation.
Power Sources Principles" (1992) concerns how to protect
humans and other species from radiation if a launch goes
awry, or a spacecraft flying by Earth accidently crashes to
the surface. It's common for spacecraft exploring the outer
solar system to use nuclear power sources for energy, since
solar power is so weak out there.
Declaration" (1996) says that space exploration shall be
carried out for the benefit of all states. This was created
two years before the International Space Station - an effort
of 15 nations - launched its first two modules into space.
The United Nations has
three UNISPACE Conferences since 1968 (a fourth one
will take place in 2018.)
This is what each conference focused on
or will focus on:
UNISPACE I (August 1968):
Progress in space exploration, international cooperation and
creating an "expert on space applications" within UNOOSA.
The United Nations body then had several workshops in the
1970s on space applications such as remote sensing,
telecommunications and cartography.
UNISPACE II/UNISPACE 82 (August
1982): Peaceful exploration of space (specifically, how to
avoid an arms race). Following the conference, UNOOSA worked
more closely with developing countries to develop their
space technology capabilities.
UNISPACE III (July 1999):
Protecting the space environment, giving developing
countries more access to space and protecting Earth's
This led to the
Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development, with
33 recommendations for space-faring countries to follow. A
follow-up report to the declaration was issued in 2004,
five years after the conference.
Will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first UNISPACE
conference and focus on what COPUOUS should do now that more
nations and nongovernmental entities are exploring space.
It should be emphasized again that the
U.N. treaties are nonbinding, but there is a sort of international
pressure by other nations when a nation strays from the principles.
There have been, however, some debates over the years about some of
the major principles of space law.
While the ultimate interpretation of
these matters is up to lawyers, here are some of the major
Access to space
This is mostly regulated by country.
Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 covers launch situations
by U.S. citizens. Uncrewed rockets heading for space and high
altitudes must receive special permission from the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) under
FAA Regulation 101.
In most cases, licenses and permits
must be issued from the FAA's
Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which examines
aspects such as launch site and launch/re-entry vehicles.
The FAA is also working on
guidelines to protect space passengers when tourism companies
Weapons in space
Perhaps the most famous effort at
putting weapons into space was the United States'
Strategic Defense Initiative, sometimes nicknamed "Star
President Ronald Reagan first
announced it in 1983 by. Parts of the system were tested on
Earth, but it was never completed. The concern was that the
portions of the system with space weapons would violate the
Outer Space Treaty.
half a million dead objects floating in Earth orbit, some
nations are now voluntarily taking measures to prevent more
space debris - such as deliberately de-orbiting satellites to
hit the Earth's atmosphere.
Without careful care, some experts
worry that space access will become restricted by debris, but it
is unclear what the legal ramifications are. In 2007, China
received international condemnation for
destroying a satellite in Earth orbit, which led to a cloud
of space debris.
In 2013, a
piece of that debris damaged a Russian satellite.
In the United States, there are two
major companies hoping to perform asteroid mining in the coming
Deep Space Industries
In 2015, the United States
passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,
which in a nutshell allows for U.S. citizens to exploit
asteroids and other space resources, but not the land on which
the resources sit.
While this makes resource hunting
legal for U.S. citizens, some experts have said
this could violate the Outer Space Treaty.
Boundary disputes and property rights
For the moment, the Outer Space
Treaty says that space and celestial bodies cannot be claimed by
other nations, but it is unclear how these provisions would
apply to private companies.
The U.S. Commercial Space Launch
Competitiveness Act (see above) does not allow for territorial
But with nations talking about landing on places such as
the moon and Mars, it is unclear how the exploitation rights and
the property rights would work in the case of adjacent colonies.
Some suggest that Antarctica, a
territory owned by no nation and used mainly for scientific
purposes, could be a model to follow - but not everyone agrees.
Geosynchronous satellite slots
Satellites positioned roughly 26,000
miles (41,800 kilometers) above the equator have the same
rotation period as the Earth.
This allows them to remain in
approximately the same location above Earth for years while
expending a minimum of fuel, making them useful for
These slots are limited and are
regulated by the International Telecommunication Union.
In 1976, eight nations on the
equator attempted to exert ownership over this space under
the Bogotá Declaration, which was largely ignored, due to
how property claims are handled under the Outer Space Treaty.
Nations agreeing to work together on
a space project can experience problems from time to time.
In 2012, for example, a NASA
planetary science budget cut led NASA to
withdraw from the European-led ExoMars project, forcing the
European Space Agency to seek another partner (which ended up
The most major international
project, the International Space Station,
has an international treaty
(and various other provisions)
governing its operations among the 15 member nations, covering
situations such as crimes or proprietary rights.
In principle, each nation retains
control over its own elements and personnel.
In most cases,
however, damages cannot be claimed among the five major
signatories on the station under a "cross-waiver of liability"
clause on all contracts.