By Alexandra Dolce
LL.M. Space Law Candidate, University of Mississippi
Space law governs space-related activities. Originally, space law was considered international law because it was only comprised of treaties, conventions, general assembly resolutions and the custom and rules of international organizations, in the same way as general international law. Legislation concerning private-space actors was enacted later.
International Space Law
There are five United Nations treaties on outer space. They are:
- The Outer Space Treaty, governing the activities of nations in the exploration and use of outer space
- The Rescue Agreement, which applies to the rescue of astronauts, the return of astronauts and the return of objects launched into outer space
- The Liability Convention, overseeing international liability for damage caused by space objects
- The Registration Convention, which emphasizes the registration of objects launched into outer space
- The Moon Agreement, governing the activities of nations on the moon and other celestial bodies
The United States is a signatory to all of these treaties, except the Moon Agreement.
For the past 50 years, the crux of these legal agreements – although they focus on different facets of regulation – has been peace and cooperation in space exploration and travel. These treaties and subsequent resolutions have always stressed that outer space is a universal territory and laboratory to which all nations have equal and rightful access.
For example, Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty says that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all states without discrimination of any kind, on the basis of equality and in accordance with international law.” Based on this premise of international peace and cooperation, nations around the world have worked together to conduct research, offer help in emergency situations, and have been diligent about following protocol associated with registration and liability.
Commercial Space Law: CSLA and the Artemis Accords
However, the prevailing legal landscape for space law is vastly different from the landscape of its beginning. The current focal point of space travel is commercial in nature as opposed to past work, which focused on research and exploration. As a result, various spacefaring nations have implemented state legislation to regulate, monitor and control commercial space activities.
In the United States, for instance, Congress enacted the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) of 1984 to govern commercial space launch activity. This legislation has several functions. For instance, it:
- Encourages commercial space launch and entry by private actors
- Regulates launches and reentry activities
- Ensures compliance with the insurance and financial obligations of licensees
- Promotes the investigation of CSLA violations and imposes penalties
On December 9, 2020, former President Donald Trump issued a memorandum outlining a national space policy. This space policy is conducive to “bolstering a U.S. presence in space, promoting U.S. unregulated access to space, encouraging robust private sector growth, increasing international cooperation, and instituting a human presence on the moon and in due course an eventual human mission to Mars.”
Additionally, the Artemis Accords, promulgated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), are a set of 2020 guidelines surrounding the Artemis Program for crewed exploration of the moon. The goal of the Artemis Program is human return to the moon by 2024 and the establishment of a crewed lunar base by 2030.
The Artemis Accords regulate space exploration, science and commercial activities by establishing a “common set of principles that govern the civil exploration and use of outer space.” Currently, there are 20 nation-state signatories.
However, it’s important to note that the Artemis Accords are not binding instruments of international law. They are simply bilateral agreements that can eventually influence the governance framework for other space settlements and international space law as a whole.
Space Law Today and Tomorrow
Space exploration and travel are important because space has become an integral part of our lives, according to Extreme Tech. As technology and science advance, our dependency on outer space will most likely increase.
Satellites in outer space currently help with global positioning system (GPS) technology and send signals that are used as a primary source of timing for cell phones and pagers. These satellites also help with forecasting weather, measuring greenhouse gases, managing and maximizing crops, and ensuring military defense.
Further, many people believe that life on earth is under threat. There is fear that lunar asteroids, disease, and natural disasters caused by global warming and other calamities will make the earth uninhabitable.
As a result, there is a fervent desire to establish human colonies in outer space. The presumption is that colonizing other planets may be a viable option for ensuring that humanity survives, no matter what happens to Earth.
Finally, over-mining of the Earth’s natural and valuable resources has led to significant environmental erosion and human exploitation. According to research conducted by NASA and various spacefaring nations, the Moon has and other planets potentially have a myriad of precious materials.
According to Extreme Tech, there is an unlimited supply of “natural resources that are rare on earth.” These resources can be extracted from areas in outer space and possibly used in the arenas of health, clean energy, electronics, automotive manufacturing, and defense.
What’s Next for Space Law?
The growing dependence of nation-states and private-sector businesses on space and their appetite for the dominance of space resources has changed the peace, cooperation, and universal proprietorship landscape to one of dominion and possession. Although Artemis Accords signatories have in theory agreed to act “civilly” in both travel and exploration, those signatories are nation-states, and the focal point is the Moon.
However, private-sector actors have not signed the Artemis Accords, so are they bound by the terms expressed in these legal agreements? The universe is vast, and there are many other planets that are viable for exploration, travel, research, mining, and exploitation.
Will or can a private company or a nation-state legally stake ownership of planets outside the purview of the various U.N. treaties and Artemis? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, it goes without saying that the United Nations and agencies similar to the U.N. will have to promote appropriate legislation and resolutions to accommodate all facets of space privatization and quasi-government collaborations. One of the primary goals of this legislation should be the encouragement of broader acceptance of these rules in the private space arena to establish and facilitate a durable foundation for local legislation.
Consequently, the primary issue is whether the current treaties will have to be amended to accommodate these vast changes. Perhaps additional treaties, conventions, and resolutions may need to be created in order to bridge the legal gap from peace and cooperation to commercialization, sovereignty, and potential conflict.