Have you ever wondered if there are any guidelines for what is and is not allowed in space? More than fifty years ago some parameters were set in place regarding space exploration. However, a lot has changed technologically, and as such things may need to be revised to protect both space and earth from contamination or monopolization, etc. Let’s look at what is and perhaps consider what should be.
The United Nations (UN) established what is called the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) or OST (Outer Space Treaty) for short. That was 1967. This agreement outlined global space exploration’s legal, technical, and political framework. They collect information about what has since its inception been launched into space and devised a special agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to track and create regulations and agreements for Member States to equitably, economically, and effectively not disrupt the physical and electromagnetic geosynchronous orbit of satellites. UNOOSA in 2013 developed the International Asteroid Warning Network and Space Mission Planning Advisory Group to identify and counter near-earth objects that may threaten our planet. (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier)
In the wake of Sputnik 1 COPUOS (Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was incorporated. Their mission is to govern space exploration in a peaceful and secure fashion. From this committee came five tenets that were divvied up between two subcommittees. The subcommittees are the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. They meet each year to talk about all things space-related and how best to cooperate in space. The five tenets are the extraction of space resources, threats posed by asteroids and types of space rocks, the nuclearization of space, regulation of space debris, and standardization of satellites. (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier)
Specifically, these measures are intended to keep the exploration of space peaceful so they can effectively benefit all of mankind (Article 1). Article 2 bans the national appropriation of outer space by any sovereignty. Article 3 prohibits weapons of mass destruction to be placed into orbit or on any planet. Article 4 states that astronauts are “regarded as envoys of mankind”. And finally, States are supposed to regulate the activities of their national organizations in space. (Article 5) (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier)
This treaty was signed by 23 Member States with one-hundred-eleven ratifications. There are several gaps in this document that require revision. Some are as follows. The words and definitions used at that time have changed substantially. Specifically, astronauts, peaceful, space weapon, and defensive, but they are not the only terms that require updating. The language set forth regarding how Member States allocate their resources was too vague and as such have been defined on their own terms by member states. The OST only took into account the non-placement of weapons of mass destruction and lacked the designation of unconventional weapons in space or ground-based weapons that can target space assets because they were yet to be designed and developed. (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier)
To close these gaps four more treaties were devised in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1978/9, and again in 1984. The first one determined a Rescue Agreement for astronauts stranded in space. The next attempted to determine what liabilities would be for any damage that occurred in space or on earth due to space objects. That was the Liability Convention. This was tested once in 1978 when Russia’s Cosmos 954 satellite fell back into the earth’s atmosphere and spilled one-hundred-ten pounds of uranium across northern Canada. Radiation was an issue at that time and will always remain an issue. Both the Rescue Agreement and the Liability Convention tackle the registration of launched space objects and who is responsible for incidents if they occur. The Moon Treaty stated that anything occurring on the moon must be for peaceful purposes. It also prohibited the placement of weapons of mass destruction or the establishment of any military bases or installations or military maneuvers on the surface of the moon including the testing of weapons. All of these were unpopular and had few signatories. Nothing new has emerged on that front since the 1970’s. (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier)
Twenty-eight nations have some form of domestic space policies in place, but they seem to lack international consensus. What is needed is something that can benefit all and break down the limitations that have cropped up from unilateral decision-making in this regard. (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier) Where to begin?
The current economic environment is ripe for spurring increased interest in space pursuit over the coming decades. When the UN agreements were constructed there were few actors involved. Nowadays there are dozens of countries and organizations creating new technologies in the space industry. Competition amongst organizations will only grow and intensify. Disagreements and gridlock over space traffic and space debris may become commonplace. Comprehensive collaborative international governance should be a priority probably best led by the US in the spirit of cooperation and understanding regarding increased space activity to ensure transparency and information sharing amongst all participants. (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier)