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date: 21 January 2019

Space Law and Weapons in Space

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Although legal principles to govern space were discussed as early as the mid-1950s, they were not formalized until the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967 was adopted and came into force.

The Outer Space Treaty establishes a number of principles affecting the placement of weapons in outer space. In particular, it provides for the peaceful use of earth’s moon along with other celestial bodies and prohibits the testing of any types of weapons on such bodies. More generally the OST forbids the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in outer space. In addition, there are a number of disarmament treaties and agreements emanating from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Conference on Disarmament that are relevant to weapons in space.

One of the fundamental question that arises is what constitutes a weapon and does its placement in space breach the requirement that outer space be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. For example, does a satellite used to control and direct an armed drone breach the peaceful use provision of the OST? There may be risks that without international norms governments and sub-state groups may acquire and use armed drones in ways that threaten regional stability, laws of war, and the role of domestic rule of law in decisions to use force.

The nature of weapons and other questions of laws affecting the placement of weapons in space, as well as the use of space assets for non-peaceful purposes, are thus of real significance when considering space law and weapons in space. Examining the characteristics that render a space object a weapon and the role of intent and perception in the issues that arise become essential aspects to consider. This also necessitates examining dual-use systems common to many space systems and operations.