Because space is an area without defined boundaries, there are many questions about legal jurisdiction on spacecraft orbiting Earth and other celestial bodies.
Space-faring 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 law.
The field of space law evolved to deal with questions such as property rights, weapons in space, protection of astronauts and other matters.
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 States (NASA)
- Russia (Roscosmos)
- the member states of the European Space Agency
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 international cooperation.
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 Space Treaty.”
It was ratified in 1967, largely based on a set of legal principles the general assembly accepted in 1962.
The treaty has several major points to it. Some of the principal ones are:
- 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 locations).
- 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 space activities.
Treaties, principles and conferences
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,
- “Shall immediately take all possible steps to rescue them and render them all necessary assistance.”
- The “Liability Convention” (1972) outlines considerations if a space object causes damage or loss to human life. Its first article says,
- “A launching state shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the earth or to aircraft flight.”
- 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, meteorites).