With human beings predicted to start going into space more often, and even to colonise planets in the coming decades, we’re beginning to wonder how traditional laws would work in space.
Space law would pertain to anything to do with space and the activities happening within it. Space law is made official legislation by collaborative bodies such as the UN. This extends to the concept of ownership, space exploration, salvage rights, liability for damage, weapon use, environmental protection and ethics.
Space lawyers are already in employment, with many private entities attempting to understand how legal issues in space will operate in the future. Space lawyers are experts in traditional fields of law as well as understanding how space works. They can draft laws and advise policy makers on what is viable to implement, as well as helping companies, businesses and people to be as compliant as possible with these new laws.
A relatively new field of study, the first legal certificate programme for the study of space law began in 2008. Now there are widespread programmes and courses across the world which will only grow in importance over the coming decades.
Space law technically began as early as 1919, with international law recognising each country’s sovereignty on the airspace above it, which was later cemented in 1954. In 1960, the International Institute of Space Law was founded to promote international cooperation in the creation of space laws. With the advent of space travel and now private launches, space law has become increasingly important to business.
One of the hottest topics in space law is who owns what territory. Resource mining is of pivotal importance and could be one of the next big industries to generate billions. Understanding who owns what part of a planet or section of space helps to keep disputes civil and sets clear boundaries over resource ownership. Whilst for example, countries can’t currently own asteroids, in theory private corporations could.
This process would begin by deploying satellites into space which could identify potentially resource-rich asteroids. Spacecraft would then be sent up to ascertain the amount of resources that could be gathered. Space law begins to apply from here, when resources are extracted and taken back. Who gets those resources, how they’re extracted and how they’re returned to Earth could all be subject to legal debate.
The Moon Treaty (or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) has been signed or ratified by 17 parties, making it international law. The Moon Treaty directly prohibits ownership by any nation, so the moon is in a way a nation unto itself. Ratified in 1967, the treaty may soon need updating.
Currently, due to The Outer Space Treaty, the countries from which spacecraft launch can be held accountable for the actions occurring in space, even if they’re enacted by private companies. This will likely be changed as more private companies begin to offer space tourism as a service.
Legal safeguards must protect people, spacecraft and the environment wherever they are in space. Laws bind individuals to uniform standards; something that must be continued wherever we go to avoid exploitation by unscrupulous individuals or ambitious businesses.
A solid legal framework will allow for any and all parties involved in space exploration and colonisation to understand exactly what they can and cannot do.
Space law can also help set precedents for things that haven’t happened yet. In 1991 NASA repealed an old policy on what to do should human beings ever contact extra-terrestrials, updating it to new standards. As space exploration sends us further into space and deeper into the unknown, established protocols will help astronauts make smart decisions.
Space experts predict some form of colony on the Moon by 2050. A solid legal system can help countries and individuals understand their rights as we move from planet to planet. Space law is one of the most important undertakings in legal history.