“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”-Star Trek Franchise
No better dialogue captures the mystery of space and humanity’s need to prove its presence in the grand abyss. Space has been of interest to many pioneers and expansionists alike. Companies like Amazon and Boeing have their approaches to fully unitize this commodity. From commercial space travel to resource consolidation, we are certainly clear of the fact that space will be the next big leap.
In the franchise of star trek, Gene Roddenberry and his writers dreamt of the advanced space age of man. It is easy to imagine an advanced civilization that would rank Type II or even Type III on the Kardashev Scale but what about the laws governing our near galactic civilizations? Topics such as:
- Resource consolidation from celestial bodies;
- Space debris and its environmental implications;
- Commercial space tourism; and
- Galactic Citizenship and methods of enforcement (one day hopefully).
Hence raising the ultimate question before us, how does the space law work? Or how should the space law be working?
What is Space Law?
Space law is that branch of law that governs space-related activities that are living, among the various laws practiced in the International Law discipline. As of now, space law is a compilation of treaties, conventions, and assembly resolutions. These are set by multi-national governments through their domestic space programmes, international agreements with other countries and UNOOSA or the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
This seems a bit vague since, as students of law, we understand that the main feature of the law is to act as a path or guide to what was and what can be, for society. Space law does not inherit that vision of law quite well, yet. Space law as it stands today is still in stages of infancy, there were strides made in research, but it is only now, that the value of space law for the future is being recognized.
One thing that must be understood about space law is its interdisciplinary nature. The legal implications of space use, fall under all fields of law. From rights and duties as a space fairing nation to property laws for items of space origin.
“Space law is a collection of domestic and international agreements and guidelines that govern issues like space exploration, military and weapons use, and liability for damage” – Deanna Paul, The Washington Post
Where do we see this Space Law?
The origin of space law goes back to the time when countries began to assign sovereignty to the ‘airspace’ directly above and within their domestic borders, in the late 1920s’. However, the real recognition of space was received during the cold war, where both the American and Russian space programmes, soon began to explore the potential weaponization plans of space. Nonetheless, Space law as a field was discovered.
The evolution of space law came from the creation of the United Nations. The establishment of the permanent Outer Space Committee was formed to maintain the United Nations Charter and other international laws in space, which paved the way for peaceful exploration.
As it stands now, space law is governed by five main treaties:
1) Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 2222 (XXI), opened for signature on January 27, 1967, entered into force on October 10, 1967.
2) Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 2345 (XXII), opened for signature on April 22, 1968, entered into force on December 3, 1968.
3) Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. Adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 2777 (XXVI), opened for signature on March 29, 1972, entered into force on September 1, 1972.
4) Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 3235 (XXIX), opened for signature on January 14, 1975, entered into force on September 15, 1976.
5) Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 34/68, opened for signature on December 18, 1979, entered into force on July 11, 1984.
Now, a question that many may ask, ‘Why create space law when the arising legal issues can be already covered in other fields or disciplines of law?’
Well, it is not so much so, for the past, as much as it is, for the future. The reason space law is generating the steam it is, is solely based on the conception, as to what space and space law will become for humanity in the near future. The treaties emphasize three principles:
- Outer space is a joint heritage for all mankind.
- It is free for exploration without any need for prior permission.
- No weaponization of space i.e., pacific use.
Applications of Space law? What kinds of laws are found here?
Many of the points that are going to be covered under this header will be similar and, in some cases, identical to the matter that we face on the ground.
- Militarization: The need for space in the early 20th century, was for its weaponized capabilities. The medium itself held many possibilities for orbital bombing, troop deployment and even a space station command centre. Adolf Hitler, during his reign, commissioned many scientists to help him realize a space-based weapon. Earlier designs indicated a plane that could, when placed in orbit hit multiple target cities in under 6 hours.
Seems hypothetical, isn’t it? But only for the time being. The militarization of space is an inevitable outcome in the making of our presence in the grand abyss. Criminal laws for space crimes are being explored as we speak.
In August of 2019, the case of Anne McClain hit headlines for being the first-ever space crime committed to date. The crime was minor but opened the eyes to the need for criminal law, with enough provisions to be enforced in space.
Even a unified criminal code, one that all space-faring nations must sign, should suffice.
- Commercial sales and tourism: There is no denying the fact that space is the next big adventure, with countries like Russia, the United States of America and others planning on commercial use of space. There is already the use of space vehicles for commercial satellite deployment, but some pioneers have thought beyond. Space tourism, they say is remarkably close to reality. Cost aside, if the pocket is deep then space is not that far away.
This however brings in the question of administrative laws, tourism laws and business laws. Where will the head office be for such tourism? Will there be a need for a permanent point of contact in space? What shall be the remedies available in case of infringement of rights? These are frequent questions asked in and beyond the legal paradigm.
Many of the offences that we see now are quite close to the offences that are dealt with on the ground under International law. However, the possibility of cases such as Anne McClain or the colliding satellites of China and Russia in 2013, are and will be on the rise as we venture deeper into space.
This calls for space law to evolve from its infancy of treaty-based negotiation to an actual code that must be followed.
- Exploration and Citizenship: This is one for futurists. To think that we are the only race to survive in the vastness of space is quite narrow. From theorists to scientists, each has its own take on events that could not be explained by earthly sciences. We are not alone and its ignorance is a by-product of arrogance. Our nativity will only last so long before our eyes are opened, and perspectives are forever changed.
In space-related videogames and shows, there are often many races that are quite opposite to ours. Some more militaristic and despotic, while others may be pacifist and spiritual. How will our laws be then? Will we submit to an already established law that we might discover in the near future or impose our laws in the sovereignty of our planet? These are questions that are not often explored, they just come and go, as topics of conversation over a sip of tea, or more prominently, within the infancies and fantasies of a curious child.
Space law is that youngest sibling who has barely seen the real world, it needs to learn the hard way. After years of evolution, space law must endure achieving a stage where it will be strong enough to carry our civilization forward.
It all begins with us taking the first step, turning our own children’s dreams, of exploring the vast and unknown abyss of the space and galaxies above, into a matter of routine for the human civilization. Until then, space law has the time to grow and evolve into what it must be, a torch that signifies humanity’s presence amongst the stars.
This article can be cited as:
Adithya Prasad, Space Law: A Primer, Metacept- Communicating the Law, accessible at https://metacept.com/space-law:-a-primer
 Astronomicheskii Zhurnal, Vol. 41, KARDASHEV NIKOLAI, TRANSMISSION OF INFORMATION BY EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL CIVILIZATIONS, page: 217 – 221, December 12, 1963, P. K. Shternberg Astronomical Institute.
 Deanna Paul, Space law: the final legal frontier, THE WASHINGTON POST, (August 31, 2019 at 5:30 p.m.), SPACE LAW: THE FINAL LEGAL FRONTIER – THE WASHINGTON POST
 Louis De Gouyon Matignon, Space Law: General Introduction, SPACE LEGAL ISSUES, SPACE LAW: GENERAL INTRODUCTION – SPACE LEGAL ISSUES (visited on 13th April 2021)