Update to space laws long overdue

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Update to space laws long overdue

TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is shown in this conceptual illustration. (Reuters)

Does any state or international organization “police” outer space? What laws apply out there? If a crime is committed in space, say on the International Space Station, what jurisdiction applies? If small or large debris from launch rockets or broken satellites hit and damage or even destroy a spacecraft, who will be held responsible for the damages and possibly the loss of life? If a space organization (national or private) lands on an asteroid (and, as I write, the Japanese Hayabusa-2 just landed on Ryugu), can it, as will soon be possible, mine it for rare, valuable and expensive minerals, bring them back to Earth and commercially benefit from them? When people start establishing stations on the Moon or on Mars, can they just claim ownership of the lands?
Some of these questions are obviously not new, since our first venture to space goes back more than 60 years. Indeed, some of these scenarios have been turned into more or less realistic movies (remember “Gravity?”). In fact, barely one year after the Soviets sent the first spacecraft up (in 1957), the UN set up an ad hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which became permanent in 1959. CUPUOS has led efforts to regulate space affairs, and indeed five treaties and five declarations and legal principles have been issued and signed by many countries. Those treaties, however, require some updating.
The five treaties were produced between 1967 and 1979. They include: the Outer Space Treaty (governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies); the Rescue Agreement (1968) for astronauts and objects that need to be brought back; the Liability Convention (1972) about any damage caused by space objects; the Registration (of objects launched into outer space) Convention (1976); and the Moon Agreement (1979). 

Indeed, it is not far-fetched to predict that, within the next decade or two, many accidents and disputes will take place in space.

Nidhal Guessoum

The five declarations and legal principles were: The first general one (1963); the principles governing the use by states of artificial satellites for international direct television broadcasting (1982); the principles relating to remote sensing of the Earth from outer space (1986); the principles relevant to the use of nuclear power sources in outer space (1992); and 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).
The first thing to note is that 40 years have passed since the most recent treaty, and more than 20 years since the last declaration. Secondly, these documents speak only of states and do not consider private companies, especially multinational ones. And thirdly, some of the problems they barely touch upon (damages and liability) have become much more pressing today, as there are now more than half a million pieces of debris bigger than 1 centimeter (enough to cause a critical hole in a satellite or spacecraft), and thousands of satellites have been launched in the last 60 years, two-thirds of them no longer operational, but most still up there.
The very fact that there are at least 10 documents regulating space affairs (or “space law”) is a problem that some experts have decided to address. A collaboration between the University of Adelaide, the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Exeter University, and the University of Nebraska wants to produce a “definitive” document pertaining to the international law of military space operations by next year. A workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska, is taking place this week with the involvement of international legal experts and technical advisers.
But this project will address only one topic of space law: The important issue of military operations, especially with the recent creation of an American “space force,” a new branch of the US military to be dedicated to “handling threats in space.” However, as I have indicated, there are a number of space issues, some of them newly emerging, that require major updates and that will not be easy to work out.
Indeed, it is not far-fetched to predict that, within the next decade or two, many accidents and disputes will take place in space. There will soon be new space stations, manned missions to the Moon and Mars, perhaps even small stations built there to house astronauts for months or even years, companies taking hundreds if not thousands of tourists to space for a few hours or longer, states or private companies beginning to mine asteroids, and other developments. These will inevitably lead to some accidents: Launch failures, collisions in space (in 2009, two satellites collided in orbit for the first time), deaths, and other misfortunes.
At the very least, the surge in space activity will require some “traffic management.” More importantly, this will require some new laws and legal frameworks to ensure that outer space remains, as the very first treaty stated, “the province of mankind,” not of the rich and powerful.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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