The Outer Space Treaty
First meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Credit: United Nations

The Outer Space Treaty

11/10/2017Written by Josh Barker

To keep space open to all, the Outer Space Treaty was drafted in 1967. The anniversary of this international space policy marks the end of World Space Week.

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The Outer Space Treaty means that although America's flag is there, the Moon does not belong to the US. Credit: NASA

Over the last seven days we have been celebrating World Space Week. This annual week celebrates science and technology, and their use in space. Schools, planetaria, museums and other institutions around the world are encouraged to run events celebrating World Space Week and hundreds of these events are run every year. This year the theme was ‘Exploring New Worlds in Space’, which focused on the exploration of places like Mars, and the investigation of things like resource utilisation and the astrobiology of far-off worlds.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space were formed to discuss international space affairs and drafted the original Outer Space Treaty. Credit: United Nations

World Space Week runs to coincide with several big anniversaries related to space. It always begins on 4 October, which is the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite. The end of World Space Week is 10 October, which is the date that the Outer Space Treaty came into effect.

The Outer Space Treaty is an international piece of space law first signed in 1967. Originally signed by just the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, now more than 100 countries have signed up. The Outer Space Treaty is an important piece of legislation that deals with land ownership in space, and controls what countries are allowed to do when it comes to space exploration.

The Outer Space Treaty stops weapons being placed in space, ideally preventing scenes like this . Credit: LucasArts

There are two major sections to the Outer Space Treaty.

The first deals with weapons and the military in space. The treaty states that no weapons of mass destruction can be placed or tested in orbit around the Earth or any other celestial object. The treaty also covers the military, forbidding the placement of military bases in space or using space for military manoeuvres.

The aim of the treaty is to ensure that space exploration benefits everyone and that all states are free to explore as they wish. Despite the treaty covering nuclear weapons, once criticism of the treaty is that conventional weapons are not mentioned, meaning that countries are technically free to deploy non-nuclear weapons in space. As of yet, this hasn’t happened but some people feel that it should be explicitly added into the treaty.

The Outer Space Treaty may prevent companies from mining asteroids in the future. Credit: Deep Space Industries.
Space law may need to change if we wish to see these sorts of scenes become reality. Credit: The Expanse

The second major point of the treaty regards celestial objects like the Moon and other bodies. The treaty explicitly forbids one state claiming sovereignty over a celestial object.  This prevents a country from stopping other countries to explore space. While the treaty prevents states from owning land on celestial objects, it does state that countries retain ownership of any objects that they send into space. This means that they are liable for any damage caused by these objects and are also responsible for cleaning them up to keep space from getting too cluttered.

The Outer Space Treaty is designed to keep space open and fair for all to explore. It specifically prevents countries from claiming ownership of celestial objects so that they can deny access to other space faring nations. It also aims to keep the cosmos clear of military threats, so that the focus of space exploration is on discovery.

Now reaching its 50th birthday, the Outer Space Treaty has performed this job fantastically so far. However as we look to the future there is potential scope for amendments or revisions. We are now reaching a period in which private companies are looking to mine resources from space and bring them back to Earth. But if they are unable to claim ownership of an object that they are mining, are they really able to sell those resources? For example, the Outer Space Theory specifically prevents people owning the Moon, but that hasn’t stopped people selling off pieces of the Moon as novelty gifts.

Although the Outer Space Treaty has withstood the test of time so far, it is clear that as our ability to explore the cosmos improves, the laws that govern space must grow and evolve as well.

About the author: Josh Barker is an Education Presenter and a part of the Space Communications team at the National Space Centre.