The Agreement on the Rescue and Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (ARRA) of 1968 deals with the obligation of states toward astronauts in distress or in emergency situations and with the obligation to return space objects. It is the second of the five United Nations space treaties, after the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967 and before the Liability Convention (LIAB) of 1972. The historical development of ARRA and how this agreement reflects the needs and interests of the two important space-faring nations at the time of its entry into force, the United States and the Soviet Union, are important factors for understanding the space race. ARRA is related to the OST and regards the various obligations of states concerning rescue and assistance as well as the return of astronauts, which stand in the middle between a general humanitarian duty and political and national security considerations. The return of space objects and the question of costs of rescue and return operations are important concerns and can be compared to the situation with the law of the sea, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 and the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law Respecting Assistance and Salvage at Sea (Salvage Convention) of 1989.
ARRA has never been applied with respect to accidents or distress of astronauts or cosmonauts but several times with respect to the recovering and returning of space objects. Finally, current challenges, such as the commercialization and privatization of outer space activities need to be addressed. This includes the increased interests of private individuals to enter outer space (so-called space tourism) and the question of the application of the ARRA to suborbital flights. Many legal challenges created by technological progress can be resolved via an evolving interpretation and application of the ARRA. Yet, some issues might warrant a new legal framework.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The Austrian Outer Space Act, which entered into force in December 2011; and the Austrian Outer Space Regulation, which has been in force since February 2015, form the legal framework for Austrian national space activities. The elaboration of national space legislation became necessary to ensure compliance with Austria’s obligations as State Party to the five United Nations Space Treaties when the first two Austrian satellites were launched in 2012 and Austria became a launching state on its own. The legislation comprehensively regulates legal aspects related to space activities, such as authorization, supervision, and termination of space activities; registration and transfer of space objects; recourse of the government against the operator; as well as implementation of the law and sanctions for its infringement. One of the main purposes of the law is to ensure the authorization of national space activities. The Outer Space Act sets forth the main conditions for authorization, which inter alia refer to the expertise of the operator; requirements for orbital positions and frequency assignments; space debris mitigation, insurance requirements, and the safeguard of public order; public health; national security as well as Austrian foreign policy interests; and international law obligations. The Austrian Outer Space Regulation complements these provisions by specifying the documents the operator must submit as evidence of the fulfillment of the authorization conditions, which include the results of safety tests, emergency plans, and information on the collection and use of Earth observation data. Particular importance is attached to the mitigation of space debris. Operators are required to take measures in accordance with international space debris mitigation guidelines for the avoidance of operational debris, the prevention of on-orbit break-ups and collisions, and the removal of space objects from Earth orbit after the end of the mission. Another specificity of the Austrian space legislation is the possibility of an exemption from the insurance requirement or a reduction of the insurance sum, if the space activity is in the public interest. This allows support to space activities that serve science, research, and education. Moreover, the law also provides for the establishment of a national registry for objects launched into outer space by the competent Austrian Ministry. The first two Austrian satellites have been entered into this registry after their launch in 2012. The third Austrian satellite, launched in June 2017, will be the first satellite authorized under the Austrian space legislation.
Mark J. Sundahl
Throughout the history of human activity in outer space, the role of private companies has steadily grown, and, in some cases, companies have even replaced government agencies as the primary actors in space. As private space activity has grown and diversified, the laws and regulations that govern private actors have been forced to evolve in reaction to the new realities of the industry. On the international level, the treaties concluded in the 1960s and 1970s continue to be in force today. However, these treaties only govern state activity in space. The rules regulating private industry are necessarily domestic in nature, and it is in these domestic laws that the evolution of space law can be most clearly seen. That said, new industries, such as asteroid mining, are testing the limits of international law and have forced the international community to examine whether changes to long-standing laws are needed.
Gianfranco Gabriele Nucera
Outer space has always assumed a relevant geopolitical value due to strategic and economic reasons. Since the beginning of the so-called space age, national space policies have pursued both political and economic objectives, taking into account fundamental security and military considerations. After the Second World War, the international relations were based on the dichotomy between the United States and the Soviet Union. The foundation of activities in outer space finds its roots in the Cold War and reproduces the distinctive geopolitical dynamics of that historical moment. The diverging interests between the two states were reflected in the political tensions that characterized the competition to reach outer space.
The classical geopolitics deals with how states should act in outer space to increase their influence in the international arena. According to the theories developed during the space race, whoever controls outer space controls the world. In this sense, security on Earth depends on the security in space, ensured by national control over the strategic assets. Space applications had indeed a central role in the context of deterrence. In addition, conducting activities in outer space represented an important tool of foreign policy and for the enhancement of international cooperation, mainly within the blocs.
International geopolitical dynamics were reflected on space regulations developed during the Cold War era. The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (OST) is the main legal instrument, which codifies the general principles in international law of space activities.
Over the past few decades, space activities have changed due to the growing participation of non-state actors to the so-called space economy. The end of the Cold War era produced a structural change of the international relations in the space sector. The traditional scheme of cooperation within the Western, or Eastern, bloc was overcome by a stronger multilateral cooperation, such in the case of the International Space Station. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War busted the regionalization of space cooperation.
Furthermore, space activities are relevant for the well-being of humankind. Many services provided by public and private companies, such as satellite broadcasting, weather forecasts, or satellite navigation, have a strong socioeconomic impact. In addition, the protection of the environment in outer space has become a central theme in the international debate, with a focus on mitigation and removal of space debris. These issues are reflected in increasing legislation, adopted to regulate space activities on a national level.
This evolution, along with technological changes, poses political challenges to the actors involved in the space arena and creates a competitive geopolitical situation in which states aim at protecting their national interests in outer space. In this context, the international space governance plays a fundamental role in bringing together national interests toward a collective interest in protecting and promoting space activities for the benefit of humankind and with due regard to the corresponding interests of all states.
Frans von der Dunk
International satellite law can best be described as that subset of international space law that addresses the operations of satellites in orbit around the Earth. Excluding, therefore, topics such as manned space flight, suborbital space operations, and any activities beyond Earth orbits, this means addressing the use of satellites for telecommunications purposes, for Earth observation and remote sensing, and for positioning, timing, and navigation.
These three major sectors of space activities are, in addition to jointly being subject to the body of international space law, each subject to their specific dedicated legal regime—international satellite communications law, international satellite remote sensing law, and international satellite navigation law.
Elina Morozova and Yaroslav Vasyanin
International space law is a branch of international law that regulates the conduct of space activities. Its core instruments include five space-specific international treaties, which were adopted under the auspices of the United Nations. The first and the underlying one—the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty)—establishes that outer space is free for exploration and use by all states. Such fundamental freedom is exercised by a number of space applications that have become an integral part of modern human life and global economy. Among such applications, satellite telecommunications is the most widespread, essential, and advanced.
Indeed, since 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite merely capable of continuous beeping during its 21-day trip around the globe, space technologies have progressed in leaps and bounds. Cutting-edge satellite telecommunications methods ensure instant delivery of huge amounts of data, relay of real-time voice and video, broadcasting of radio and television, and Internet access worldwide. By transmitting signals over any distance telecommunications satellites connect locations everywhere on Earth.
A telecommunications satellite’s lifetime, starting from the launch and ending at de-orbiting, is governed by international space law. The latter considers satellites as “space objects” and regulates liability, registration, jurisdiction and control, debris mitigation, and touches upon ownership. Therefore, the first large group of international law rules applicable to satellite telecommunications includes provisions of three out of five UN space treaties, specifically, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and the 1976 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, as well as several UN General Assembly resolutions.
To carry out a communication function, satellites need to be placed in a certain orbit and to use radio-frequency spectrum, both limited natural resources. Access to these highly demanded resources, which are not subject to national appropriation and require rational, efficient, and economical uses in an interference-free environment, is managed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies. The ITU’s core regulatory documents are its Constitution, Convention, and the Radio Regulations, which collectively make up another group of international law rules relevant to satellite telecommunications.
Both groups of international law rules constitute the international legal regime of satellite telecommunications and face the challenge of keeping pace with technology advancement and market evolution, as well as with a growing number of states and non-state actors carrying on space activities. These tangible changes need to be addressed in the regulatory framework that cannot but serve as a driver for further development of satellite telecommunications.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Space debris has grown to be a significant problem for outer space activities. The remnants of human activities in space are very diverse; they can be tiny paint flakes, all sorts of fragments, or entirely intact—but otherwise nonfunctional spacecraft and rocket bodies. The amount of debris is increasing at a growing pace, thus raising the risk of collision with operational satellites. Due to the relative high velocities involved in on-orbit collisions, their consequences are severe; collisions lead to significant damage or the complete destruction of the affected spacecraft. Protective measures and collision avoidance have thus become a major concern for spacecraft operators. The pollution of space with debris must, however, not only be seen as an unfavorable circumstance that accompanies space activities and increases the costs and complexity of outer space activities. Beyond this rather technical perspective, the presence of man-made, nonfunctional objects in space represents a global environmental concern. Similar to the patterns of other environmental problems on Earth, debris generation appears to have surpassed the absorption capacity of the space environment. Studies indicate that the evolution of the space object environment has crossed the tipping point to a runaway situation in which an increasing number of collisions―mostly among debris―leads to an uncontrolled population growth. It is thus in the interest of all mankind to address the debris problem in order to preserve the space environment for future generations.
International space law protects the space environment. Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty obligates States to avoid the harmful contamination of outer space. The provision corresponds to the obligation to protect the environment in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the customary “no harm” rule of general environmental law. These norms are applicable to space debris and establish the duty not to pollute outer space by limiting the generation of debris. They become all the more effective when the principles of sustainable development are taken into account, which infuse considerations of intra- as well as inter-generational justice into international law. In view of the growing debris pollution and its related detrimental effects, it is obvious that questions of liability and responsibility will become increasingly relevant. The Liability Convention offers a remedy for victims having suffered damage caused by space debris. The launching State liability that it establishes is even absolute for damage occurring on the surface of the Earth. The secondary rules of international responsibility law go beyond mere compensation: States can also be held accountable for the environmental pollution event itself, entailing a number of consequential obligations, among them―under certain circumstances―a duty to active debris removal. While international law is, therefore, generally effective in addressing the debris problem, growing use and growing risks necessitate the establishment of a comprehensive traffic management regime for outer space. It would strengthen the rule of law in outer space and ensure the sustainability of space utilization.
Christopher Daniel Johnson
Negotiated at the United Nations and in force since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has been ratified by over 100 countries and is the most important and foundational source of space law. The treaty, whose full title is “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” governs all of humankind’s activities in outer space, including activities on other celestial bodies and many activities on Earth related to outer space. All space exploration and human spaceflight, planetary sciences, and commercial uses of space—such as the global telecommunications industry and the use of space technologies such as position, navigation, and timing (PNT), take place against the backdrop of the general regulatory framework established in the Outer Space Treaty.
A treaty is an international legal instrument which balances rights and obligations between states, and exists as a kind of mutual contract of shared understandings, rights, and responsibilities between them. Negotiated and drafted during the Cold War era of heightened political tensions, the Outer Space Treaty is largely the product of efforts by the United States and the USSR to agree on certain minimum standards and obligations to govern their competition in “conquering” space. Additionally, the Outer Space Treaty is similar to other treaties, including treaties governing the high seas, international airspace, and the Antarctic, all of which govern the behavior of states outside of their national borders. The treaty is brief in nature and only contains 17 articles, and is not comprehensive in addressing and regulating every possible scenario. The negotiating states knew that the Outer Space Treaty could only establish certain foundational concepts such as freedom of access, state responsibility and liability, non-weaponization of space, the treatment of astronauts in distress, and the prohibition of non-appropriation of celestial bodies. Subsequent treaties were to refine these concepts, and national space legislation was to incorporate the treaty’s rights and obligations at the national level.
While the treaty is the cornerstone in the regulation of activities in outer space, today the emergence of new issues that were not contemplated at the time of its creation, such as small satellites and megaconstellations, satellite servicing missions, the problem of space debris and the possibility of space debris removal, and the use of lunar and asteroid resources, all stretch the coherence and continuing adequacy of the treaty, and may occasion the need for new governance frameworks.
Anja Nakarada Pečujlić
The adoption and entering into force of the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (also known as the Registration Convention) was another achievement in expanding and strengthening the corpus iuris spatialis. It was the fourth treaty negotiated by the member states of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) and it represents a lex specialis to the Outer Space Treaty (OST), elaborating further Articles V, VIII, and XI of the OST. Article V OST deals with safe and prompt return of astronauts in case of distress or emergency landing to the state of registry of their space vehicle, which is then further defined in the Registration Convention. Article VIII OST only implied registration and provided for the consequences thereof, namely in respect of exercising jurisdiction and control over a registered space object. However, the Registration Convention specified the ensuing obligations and regulated the necessary practical steps of space objects registration. The Registration Convention also complements and strengthens Article XI OST, which stipulates an obligation of state parties to inform the secretary-general of the nature, conduct, locations, and results of their space activities in order to promote international cooperation.
The prevailing purposes of the Registration Convention is the clarification of “jurisdiction and control” as a comprehensive concept mentioned in Article VIII OST. In addition to its overriding objective, the Registration Convention also contributes to the promotion and the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. Establishing and maintaining a public register reduces the possibility of the existence of unidentified space objects and thereby lowers the risk of putting, for example, weapons of mass destruction secretly into orbit. Notwithstanding these important objectives, the negotiation history of the Convention and its lower number of ratification compared to the previous three space treaties testify to the numerous challenges that surround registration. The mandatory marking of space objects was one of the most heated points of debate between member states during the drafting of the Convention in the 1970s. Member states had conflicting views, depending on whether they were launching states or potential victims of launch failures. Additionally, questions on whether there should be one central or several registers and whether the type of information to be registered should be obligatory or optional were also pivotal in the discussion. It took five years of negotiation for member states to reach compromises and to adopt the Registration Convention, containing 12 articles. The articles covered issues ranging from registration procedure and different registries to amendments and withdrawal from the Convention. In addition, the following novelties were introduced: a new definition on “state of registry” was included; the “Moscow formula” was abandoned as the depositary was moved to the UN; and the “in five years review” clause found in Article X signified that the drafters were anticipating that technological developments could have such an impact on the Convention’s provisions that shorter time span between reviews were required than in previous space treaties.
Despite the Convention’s novelties and its objective to protect the attribution of jurisdiction and control on the basis of a registry, as well as to ensure the rights provided in the Liability Convention and the Rescue and Return Agreement by offering means to identify space objects, the articles dealing with joint launch registration and registration by Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) are seen as weakening jurisdiction and control concept. Due to the fact that jurisdiction and control stay only with the state of registry, the other launching states may only conclude appropriate agreements to retain any of these rights. Thus, international responsibility and liability remain with all the launching states, but jurisdiction and control only with the state of registry. Furthermore, in the case of an IGO, the IGO does not have the sovereign authority to exercise jurisdiction and control, thereby raising the question who could do so instead of or on behalf of an IGO. In this regard, the Convention leaves important areas unregulated. In the following years, there were proposals to expand the Registration Convention to encompass other subject matters such as financial interests of assets in outer space; however, up until today, these issues remain regulated only by the UNIDROIT Space Assets Protocol.
Bernhard Schmidt-Tedd and Alexander Soucek
Space objects are subject to registration in order to allocate “jurisdiction and control” over those objects in the sovereign-free environment of outer space. This approach is similar to the registration of ships on the high seas and for aircraft in international airspace. Registration is one of the basic principles of space law, starting with the first space-related UN General Assembly (GA) Resolution 1721 B (XVI) of December 20, 1961, followed by UN GA Resolution 1962 (XVIII) of December 1963 then formulated in Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and later specified in the Registration Convention of 1975. Registration of space objects has arguably grown into a principle of customary international law, relevant for each spacefaring state. Registration occurs at the national and international level in a two-step process. To enter and object into the UN Register of Space Objects, the state establishes a national registry for its space objects and notifies the UN Secretary General of all registered objects. The UN Register is handled by the UN Office for Outer Space Affaires (UNOOSA), which has created a searchable database as an open source of information for space objects worldwide. Registration is linked to the so-called launching state of the relevant space object. There may be more than one launching state for the specific launch event, but only one state can register a specific space object. The state of registry has jurisdiction and control over the space object and therefore no double-registration is admissible.
Registration practice has evolved in response to technical developments and legal challenges. After the privatization of major international satellite organizations, a number of nonregistrations had to be addressed. The result was the UN GA Registration Practice Resolution of 2007 as elaborated by the legal subcommittee of the UN Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space.
The complexity of space activities and concepts such as megaconstellations present new challenges for the registration system. For example, the Registration Practice Resolution recommends that in cases of joint launches each space object should be registered separately. Registration of space objects is a legal instrument relevant for state responsibility and liability, but it is not an adequate instrument for space traffic management. The orbit-related information of the registration system is useful for identification purposes but not for real-time positioning information. Orbital data to allow positioning, tracking, and collision warnings need to respond to various requirements of accuracy.
Shortly after the launch of the first manmade satellite in 1957, the United Nations (UN) took the lead in formulating international rules governing space activities. The five international conventions (the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue Agreement, the 1972 Liability Convention, the 1975 Registration Convention, and the 1979 Moon Agreement) within the UN framework constitute the nucleus of space law, which laid a solid legal foundation securing the smooth development of space activities in the next few decades. Outer space was soon found to be a place with abundant opportunities for commercialization. Telecommunications services proved to be the first successful space commercial application, to be followed by remote sensing and global navigation services. In the last decade, the rapid development of space technologies has brought space tourism and space mining to the forefront of space commercialization. With more and more commercial activities taking place on a daily basis from the 1980s, the existing space law faces severe challenges. The five conventions, enacted in a time when space was monopolized by two superpowers, failed to take into account the commercial aspect of space activities. While there is an urgent need for new rules to deal with the ongoing trend of space commercialization, international society faces difficulties in adopting new rules due to diversified concerns over national interests and adjusts the legislative strategies by enacting soft laws. In view of the difficulty in adopting legally binding rules at the international level, states are encouraged to enact their own national space legislation providing sufficient guidance for their domestic space commercial activities. In the foreseeable future, it is expected that the development of soft laws and national space legislation will be the mainstream regulatory activities in the space field, especially for commercial space activities.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Outer space is once again facing renewed competition. Unlike in the earlier decades of space exploration when there were two or three spacefaring powers, by the turn of the 21st century, there are more than 60 players making the outer space environment crowded and congested. Space is no more a domain restricted to state players. Even though it is mostly a western phenomenon, the reality of commercial players as a major actor is creating new dynamics. The changing power transitions are making outer space contested and competitive. Meanwhile, safe and secure access to outer space is being challenged by a number of old and new threats including space debris, militarization of space, radio frequency interference, and potential arms race in space. While a few foundational treaties and legal instruments exist in order to regulate outer space activities, they have become far too expansive to be useful in restricting the current trend that could make outer space inaccessible in the longer term. The need for new rules of the road in the form of norms of responsible behavior, transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) such as a code of conduct, a group of governmental experts (GGE), and legal mechanisms, is absolutely essential to have safe, secure, and uninterrupted access to outer space. Current efforts to develop these measures have been fraught with challenges, ranging from agreement on identifying the problems to ideating possible solutions. This is a reflection of the shifting balance of power equations on the one hand, and the proliferation of technology to a large number of players on the other, which makes the decision-making process a lot problematic. In fact, it is the crisis in decision making and the lack of consensus among major space powers that is impeding the process of developing an effective outer space regime.
China has made remarkable achievements in the space sector and has become one of the most relevant players in the outer space domain. Highlights of this process have been the deployment in orbit of the first Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, on September 29, 2011, and the landing of the Yutu rover on the lunar surface on December 14, 2013.
While technological developments have occurred at such a rapid pace, the same cannot be said of the regulatory framework governing Chinese space activities, which still lays at its infant stage. Indeed, unlike other major spacefaring countries, China lacks a comprehensive and uniform national space legislation; as of now, China has enacted two low-level administrative regulations addressing the issues of launching and registration of space objects.
With the growth of the Chinese space program, such a lack of structured national space law is beginning to show its limits and to raise concerns about its negative impact on business opportunities and the ability of China to fully comply with international obligations. One should keep in mind that international space treaties (China is part to four international space law treaties) are not self-executing, thus requiring states to adopt domestic measures to ensure their effective implementation.
Importantly, Chinese authorities appear to be aware of these issues; as stated by the Secretary-General of the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) in 2014, national space law has been listed in the national legislation plan, and the CNSA is directly engaged in such a process. However, questions remain as to how this drafting process will be conducted and what legal form and content the law will have. For example, China could either decide to proceed with a gradual approach, consisting in the adoption of laws addressing selected issues to be eventually assembled into one single law or to directly move to the adoption of one comprehensive law.
In any case, if enacted, a Chinese national space law would represent an important step in the advancement of the Chinese space program and in the progress of international space law as such.
International space law is a branch of public international law. Norms of treaty law and customary law provide a foundation for the behavior of the subjects of international law performing space activities. Five multilateral space treaties are in effect, which are complemented by important recommendations of international organizations such as United Nations (UN) General Assembly Resolutions and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Regulations.
The Inter-Agency Space Debris Mitigation Coordination Committee (IADC), a non-governmental body composed of several space agencies (for instance, the European Space Agency, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Russian Federal Space Agency), issued its Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2002. The IADC defines “space debris” as “all man-made space objects including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, that are non-functional” (IADC, 2002, Revision 1, 2007, 3.1. Space Debris). Although the term “space debris” was not included in any space treaty, the drafters of the space treaties considered space objects as “hazardous” because “component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicles and parts thereof” detach in course of normal launching operations, because space objects can fragment during an attempted launch, and because space objects that re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and survive friction have the potential to cause damage. In addition, radioactive and chemical substances on board space objects may represent a hazard to populations and the environment on the Earth.
Besides the threats to aircraft in flight and to persons and property on the surface of the Earth, space debris in orbit is increasing alarmingly and poses a threat to manned space missions and non-manned space objects. While the Convention on International Liability for Damages Caused by Space Objects (Liability Convention, 1972) considers the threats of space objects during launch, in outer space, and when entering the Earth’s atmosphere, there have been efforts to minimize the generation of space debris in orbit, outside the framework of the space treaties.
The IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines are a comprehensive list of recommendations to launching states, owners, and operators of space objects. They are increasingly recognized by states through the creation of codes of conduct, national legislation, recommendations of international organizations, and state practice. Furthermore, non-governmental institutions, like the International Organization for Standardization, are providing more detailed technical instructions for the implementation of the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which are a breakthrough for the application of the guidelines by states of different economic and technical standing.
Even though states are reluctant to accept new obligations through treaties, recommendations and state practice are becoming powerful instruments to avert the dangers of hazardous space debris that may create damage on the Earth or in orbit. Space debris also is becoming one of the drivers for the initiatives of the United Nations on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities to promote the existing mitigation guidelines and to formulate new guidelines for clearing outer space of debris.
Although legal principles to govern space were discussed as early as the mid-1950s, they were not formalized until the Outer Space Treaty (OST) 1967 was adopted and came into force. The OST establishes a number of principles affecting the placement of weapons in outer space. In particular it provides that “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes” 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 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Conference on Disarmament that are relevant to weapons in space.
Although the disarmament provisions and international humanitarian laws place some restrictions on the use or manner of use of space weapons, none prohibit space weaponization. The absence of such prohibition is not due to many attempts over the years to prevent an arms race in space. Notable among these are Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Draft Treaty and the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Space Draft Treaty.
In considering the laws affecting space weapons a 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? As an 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 substate 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.
Given their orbital velocity, any object in space could be a weapon with capability to destroy a satellite or other space object. There is also a growing population of dual-use satellites with military as well as civilian applications. These present great difficulty in arriving at a workable definition of a space weapon in the formulation of a generally acceptable treaty. In addition, there are divergent views of the meaning of peaceful use. Some, in particular the United States, consider the meaning to be “nonaggressive” rather than “nonmilitary.”
The use and exploration of space by humans is historically implicated with international and national security. Space exploration itself was sparked, in part, by the race to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and the strategic uses of space enable the global projection of force by major military powers. The recognition of space as a strategic domain spurred states to develop the initial laws and policies that govern space activities to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Space security, therefore, is a foundational concept to space law.
Since the beginning of the Space Age, the concept of security has morphed into a multivariate term, and contemporary space security concerns more than just securing states from the dangers of ICBMs. The prevalence of space technologies across society means that security issues connected to the space domain touch on a range of legal regimes. Specifically, space security law involves components of international peace and security, national security, human security, and the security of the space environment itself.
The great rise and diversification of the use of outer space raises the question of the limitations to space activities. The ultimate restriction posed by space law is the use of outer space “for peaceful purposes.” Regardless of the semantic approach one adopts with respect to the definition of the term “peaceful purposes” in the text of the Outer Space Treaty, it is the underlying substantive legal normativity which constitutes the determining factor. The applicable international legal rules confirm that the ultimate limit is the prohibition of the use of force laid down in Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter, which applies to outer space along with the exceptions stipulated in the UN Charter and general international law. In addition, the Outer Space Treaty establishes a particular legal regime on celestial bodies, declaring them a demilitarized zone, and bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Space law, as any other branch of public international law, is of evolutive nature, so future adjustments and developments of its legal normativity in light of the abrupt growth and multiplication of the exploration and uses in the space arena remain open.