Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Space Law - A Primer on the Final Frontier

It should come as no surprise that outer space is getting a little crowded.

Industrial and developing nations are rushing to take advantage of the benefits of satellite technology for observation and communication purposes.

Space exploration is also increasing.

Recently, India launched its first unmanned mission to the moon.

This comes only a year after China's moon project launch and a month after its third manned mission and first spacewalk.

Even the European Space Agency (ESA) is looking at building its own manned spacecraft.

And that does not even begin to consider the rise of private spaceflight companies.

A lot of people are rushing to claim their piece of the night sky.

But can they actually own a part of outer space? And can they do whatever they want up there?

Currently, outer space is getting a lot of attention in the international legal community. Issues like jurisdiction, safety & liability, and private vs. military uses all raise legal questions.

Everyday International Law (EIL) plans to look at the law surrounding military functions in outer space. This is often called the weaponization of space.

To do this, we first need to look at the existing law that governs outer space.

In a later entry, we'll look at how those laws relate to the weaponization of space. We'll also look at a possible emerging treaty; the applicability of customary international law, and the latest U.S. domestic policies that apply to outer space.

What is the existing international law for outer space?

The treaties specifically discussing obligations in outer space include:

  • Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests In The Atmosphere, In Outer Space And Under Water, 1963 (“Limited Test Ban Treaty”)
  • Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1967 ("Outer Space Treaty")
  • Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, 1968 (“Rescue Agreement”)
  • Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, 1972 (“Liability Convention”)
  • Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, 1975 (“Registration Convention”)
  • Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1979 ("Moon Treaty")
These treaties are not the totality of corpus juris spatialis (the law of outer space), but lay out most of the obligations that nations have affirmatively undertaken.

What obligations do these treaties create?

  • Space is to be used for peaceful purposes.
  • Outer Space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, even by occupation.
  • Military bases are not permitted on the moon or other celestial bodies. Use of military personnel in space exploration is permitted.
  • Nuclear weapons & weapons of mass destruction are not to be deployed in outer space.
  • Space-faring nations have a duty to rescue stranded astronauts and return other nations' retrieved space objects.
  • If a nation's space activities causes damage on Earth in another country, that nation is obligated to pay for those damages.
  • Nations launching objects into Earth orbit must register the object as soon as reasonably possible with a United Nations' registry, stating the orbiting path of the object and its purpose.
There are other duties, like giving reciprocity to representatives from other nations, but these are the main duties derived from this collection of treaties.

Interestingly, most of these treaties are signed by a large number of the international community. The Moon Treaty is not signed by many nations at all. Only 17 nations have signed it. Of the nations that are exploring the moon, only India has signed the Moon Treaty.

Next, EIL will take at look at recent developments in the weaponization of outer space and what international law may govern there.