To Infinity and Beyond: Space Law 101

Emily Albrecht
Space law governs space exploration, liability for damage, weapons use, rescue efforts, environmental preservation, and information sharing.

Space law governs space exploration, liability for damage, weapons use, rescue efforts, environmental preservation, and information sharing.

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What Is Space Law?

“Space Law” is just as it sounds—that which governs space-related activities, including space exploration, liability for damage, weapons use, rescue efforts, environmental preservation, information sharing, new technologies, and ethics, encompassing both international and domestic agreements, rules, and principles. Space law is also tightly intertwined within the purview—or universe—of other fields of law such as administrative law, intellectual property law, arms control law, insurance law, environmental law, criminal law and commercial law.

Whose Space Is It Anyway?

The 1963 Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space provided that all space exploration would be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law. No one nation may claim ownership of outer space or celestial body. Activities carried out in space must abide by the international law and the nations undergoing such activities must accept responsibility for the governmental or non-governmental agency involved. Objects launched into space are subject to the nation of their belonging, and objects, parts and components discovered outside the jurisdiction of a nation will be returned upon identification. If a nation launches an object into space, then they are responsible for any damages that occur internationally. Furthermore, the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space was banned pursuant to the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water.

International Consensus

The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Outer Space Treaty) established a series of broad principles that have since been elaborated upon and implemented through subsequent international agreements and national laws. Principles established by the Outer Space Treaty include:

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind;
  • Outer space and celestial bodies are free for exploration and use by all States;
  • Outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation;
  • No Weapons of Mass Destruction are permitted in outer space;
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • States shall be responsible for their national activities in outer space, whether carried on by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require the authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State;
  • States shall retain jurisdiction and control over their space objects and any personnel thereon;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid the harmful contamination of outer space.

The Outer Space Treaty was followed by the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space; the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects; the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space; and the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is now considered dormant because it has not been ratified by any of the major space powers.

Per the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the five aforementioned treatises and agreements of international space law cover “non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, arms control, the freedom of exploration, liability for damages caused by space objects, the safety and rescue of spacecraft and astronauts, the prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, the notification and registration of space activities, scientific investigation and the exploration of natural resources in outer space and the settlements of disputes.”

In addition to the major treaties, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted several resolutions that are generally followed by the international community on a non-binding basis. These include the 1963 Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space; 1982 Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting; the 1986 Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space; the 1992 Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources In Outer Space; and the 1996 Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States, Taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries. The International Telecommunications Union also plays an important role in space operations by assigning positions and frequencies for satellites in geostationary orbit, where most telecommunications satellites are located. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space administers the major space treaties and advises the international community on space policy matters.

National Regulatory Autonomy

The Outer Space Treaty gives the country where space-related activity is taking place the responsibility for regulation in both the public and private sector. In the United States, each government agency that operates spacecraft is responsible for complying with US law and international treaty obligations. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates non-government spaceports and the launch and reentry of private spacecraft under the Commercial Space Launch Act, as amended by the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. Various other federal laws, such as the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations, state contract and tort laws and decades of commercial practice in the telecommunications, remote sensing and launch services industries also affect government and private space operations.

NASA, Take the Wheel

In addition to the various international treaties adopted by the United Nations, nations participating in the International Space Station entered into a 1998 agreement concerning cooperation of the Civil International Space Station, which provides, in pertinent part, that NASA is the lead agency in coordinating member states’ contributions to, and activities in, the International Space Station and that each nation will maintain jurisdiction over its own modules thereof, including mechanisms for protection of intellectual property and procedures for criminal prosecution.

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Emily Albrecht

Emily Albrecht is an associate editor for TYL. She lives in Seattle, Washington, where she focuses her practice on mortuary litigation and insurance defense, including product liability and professional liability.