The Outer Space Treaty – What is the Law in Space?

The Outer Space Treaty – What is the Law in Space?

27/01/2022Written by Dhara Patel

Marking 55 years since the signing of the Outer Space Treaty: Is this guide to what we should do in space still fit for purpose?

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Private companies like SpaceX are now competitors in commercial spaceflight; the SpaceX Dragon capsule readying to dock at the ISS. Credit: NASA

The Outer Space Treaty is a set of governing principles in the exploration and use of outer space, and it forms the basis of international space law. But with the rise of space tourism and private space companies joining the mix, and the building of settlements on the Moon and Mars on the tables, is this guide to what we should do in space still fit for purpose? And what other rules might be needed in twenty-first century space exploration? 

Why was the Outer Space Treaty Created? 

Why was the Outer Space Treaty Created? 
Representatives of the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States signing the Outer Space Treaty on 27th January 1967. Credit: UN Photo
Why was the Outer Space Treaty Created? 
Countries that are party to the Outer Space Treaty: Parties (green), Signatories (yellow), Non-parties (red). Credit: Happenstance and Danlaycock et al

Prompted in part by the United Nations, the Outer Space Treaty was created in response to a fear of nuclear weapons being used in space and a nation staking claim to the Moon during the height of the Space Race, when the United States and Soviet Union were competing to make the first crewed lunar landing. The treaty began with the United States and Soviet Union along with the United Kingdom, but now has over 100 countries that are signed up to it.  

The treaty is made up of a handful of core principles which express that space can be explored by all, no nation can claim sovereignty over any of it, and that celestial bodies like the Moon and outer space should only be used for peaceful purposes. It specifically lists that nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction should not be placed in orbit or on celestial bodies, or in outer space. The treaty also outlines that each nation is responsible for any of its country’s space activities. They are also accountable for damage caused by their space objects and should avoid contaminating space and other celestial bodies. 

Who is Affected by Space Law? 

Who is Affected by Space Law? 
Blue Origin is a private American aerospace and spaceflight company, but the US is still responsible for their space activities according to international law. Credit: Blue Origin

Because space law is a branch of international law, it applies to everyone – from government organisations to commercial and private companies too. However, it is the nation that is responsible for all space activities conducted within it. So, the United States is held accountable for the government organisation NASA but also the actions of private American spaceflight companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX. But the Outer Space Treaty is just a broad set of principles and lacks detail, so it’s up to individual nations to set laws that ensure they are abiding by the treaty. How successfully they do it remains open to debate.  

Some of the present issues that call for a more detailed international framework include space mining, small space satellites, and space debris. 

Space Mining

Space Mining
Scientists from the Chinese National Space Administration opening the Moon sample returned by the Chang'e-5 spacecraft. Credit: Xinhua

Countries like the USA and Luxembourg have their own laws for space mining and allow for their citizens to have, own, use, sell, or transport extracted resources from asteroids or other space mining efforts. The nations promise to be acting in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty (because there’s nothing specific in there about space mining), but it contradicts the principle of space being the ‘province of humankind’ – the broad nature of the treaty leaves that open to interpretation. Many space law experts would prefer an international framework that better adopts the principle of free use of outer space for all and sustainable space mining, rather than individual approaches by each country. 

Small Satellites

Small Satellites
Starlink satellite constellation which SpaceX hopes to provide global satellite internet coverage with. Credit: SpaceX

The number of small satellites being launched each year continues to increase with the majority for communication purposes. In January 2021, a single SpaceX Falcon rocket sent over 140 different satellites into orbit, that’s more that the total number of satellites sent up in the entirety of 2019. Whilst independent agencies like the US Federal Communications Commission for example, regulate satellite communications and approve American satellite launches, there’s no worldwide central authority to ensure sustainable and responsible satellite use. And with lots of private companies such as Amazon, Boeing, Inmarsat, OneWeb, and SpaceX all vying for the same region of low earth orbit to build a global broadband service using satellites, it’s becoming an even more crowded place. This may increase the chances of collisions and the creation of space debris, especially if the small satellites don’t have propulsion to allow them the move out of the way. 

Space Debris

Space Debris
Space debris. Credit: ESA
Space Debris
The entry hole created on Space Shuttle Endeavour's radiator panel by the impact of unknown piece of space debris. Credit: NASA

While the Outer Space Treaty implies that nations should take action to avoid issues around space debris to ensure space can be explored safely by all and to avoid harmful contamination of space, it’s not explicitly stated. In 2009, a disused Russian military spacecraft by the name of Kosmos-2251 collided into a working communications satellite called Iridium 33, creating almost 2,000 pieces of trackable space debris.  

Not only are collisions a problem, but countries using missiles to blow up their own satellites creates harmful debris too. In November 2021, Russia sent a missile to destroy a long-defunct Soviet intelligence satellite. The strike resulted in 1,500 bits of debris along with hundreds of thousands of untrackable pieces. The incident had astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS preparing for a potential emergency return to Earth, and in January 2022 China reported one of its satellites had a remarkably close encounter with one of the resulting debris pieces. The United States, China, and India have all conducted anti-satellite missile tests too with the knowledge that it would generate lots of space debris but once again due to the surface-level nature of the Outer Space Treaty, there’s no specific ban on using ground-based weapons against objects in space. 

Space Law for the Future

Space Law for the Future
NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon by the mid-2020s in its Artemis program. Credit: NASA
Space Law for the Future
Flags of members of NATO flying outside of the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Dursun Aydemir and Anadolu Agency

In 2020, NASA announced its Artemis Accords which are an international agreement between the different governments taking part in the Artemis Program – an American initiative to return humans to the Moon by the mid-2020s. The principles of the agreement are heavily grounded on the Outer Space Treaty, but critics might argue that an international agreement led by one nation could be seen as an attempt to craft international space law to preferably suit that country.  

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also released its own space policy in January 2022 which asks its member states to work together on space operations – committing to defending each other and responding to attacks, as well as complementing the work of one and other to avoid spending resources working on the same things. 

Space law is becoming a growing field with the new era of space exploration changing so rapidly. Whilst the Outer Space Treaty still forms a good set of overarching principles for space-based activities, a clearer outline of international space law is needed. But it will depend on all countries, government organisations, private corporations and commercial companies working together to agree on the necessary changes to a framework we’ve been relying on for the past 55 years.  

About the author: Dhara Patel is a Space Expert at the National Space Centre.