Emergence of ballistic missile technology after World War II enabled human flight into the Earth’s orbit, fueling the imagination of those fascinated with science, technology, exploration, and adventure. The performance of astronauts in the early flights assuaged concerns about the functioning of “the human system” in the absence of the Earth’s gravity. However, researchers in space medicine have observed degradation of crews after longer exposure to the space environment and have developed countermeasures for most of them, although significant challenges remain. With the dawn of the 21st century, well-financed and technically competent commercial entities have begun to provide more affordable alternatives to historically expensive and risk-averse government-funded programs. The growing accessibility to space has encouraged entrepreneurs to pursue plans for potentially autarkic communities beyond the Earth, exploiting natural resources on other worlds. Should such dreams prove to be technically and economically feasible, a new era will open for humanity with concomitant societal issues of a revolutionary nature.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The space and multitude of celestial bodies surrounding Earth hold a vast wealth of resources for a variety of space and terrestrial applications. The unlimited solar energy, vacuum, and low gravity in space, as well as the minerals, metals, water, atmospheric gases, and volatile elements on the Moon, asteroids, comets, and the inner and outer planets of the Solar System and their moons, constitute potential valuable resources for robotic and human space missions and for future use in our own planet. In the short term, these resources could be transformed into useful materials at the site where they are found to extend mission duration and to reduce the costly dependence from materials sent from Earth. Making propellants and human consumables from local resources can significantly reduce mission mass and cost, enabling longer stays and fueling transportation systems for use within and beyond the planetary surface. Use of finely grained soils and rocks can serve for habitat construction, radiation protection, solar cell fabrication, and food growth. The same material could also be used to develop repair and replacement capabilities using advanced manufacturing technologies. Following similar mining practices utilized for centuries on Earth, identifying, extracting, and utilizing extraterrestrial resources will enable further space exploration, while increasing commercial activities beyond our planet. In the long term, planetary resources and solar energy could also be brought to Earth if obtaining these resources locally prove to be no longer economically or environmentally acceptable.
Throughout human history, resources have been the driving force for the exploration and settling of our planet. Similarly, extraterrestrial resources will make space the next destination in the quest for further exploration and expansion of our species. However, just like on Earth, not all challenges are scientific and technological. As private companies start working toward exploiting the resources from asteroids, the Moon, and Mars, an international legal framework is also needed to regulate commercial exploration and the use of space and planetary resources for the benefit of all humanity. These resources hold the secret to unleash an unprecedented wave of exploration and of economic prosperity by utilizing the full potential and value of space. It is up to us humans here on planet Earth to find the best way to use these extraterrestrial resources effectively and responsibly to make this promise a reality.
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.
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.