Space activities are technically sophisticated and challenging endeavors involving high risk. Notwithstanding precautionary measures that are taken by commercial operators, damage may be caused during space objects’ launching, passing through air space, in-orbit maneuvering and operating, and de-orbiting. The rules and procedures aimed at ensuring the prompt payment of a full and equitable compensation for such damage constitute the international liability regime, which is of crucial importance in space law. The first reference to international liability for damage caused by space objects and their component parts on Earth, in air space, or in outer space can be traced back to the very beginning of the space era. In 1963, just a few years after the first ever artificial satellite was launched, international liability was declared by the United Nations General Assembly as one of the legal principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space. It was later made legally binding by inclusion in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and received further development in the 1972 Liability Convention. The latter is generally referred to as lex specialis when the interrelation between the two international treaties is described and introduces several provisions that treat liability for damage caused in specific circumstances somewhat differently. International space law imputes liability on states that launch or procure launchings of space objects and states from whose territory or facility space objects are launched. This does not, however, exclude liability for damage caused by space objects that are operated by private entities. Still, international liability for accidents involving commercial operators stays with the so-called launching states, as this term is defined by the Liability Convention for the same states that are listed in the Outer Space Treaty as internationally liable. Insurance is well known to address damages and liability issues, including those arising from commercial launches; however, it is not always mandatory. Frequently, space-related accidents involve nonfunctional space objects and their component parts, which are usually referred to as “space debris.” This may include spent rocket stages and defunct satellites, as well as fragments from their disintegration. Since the nonfunctional state of a space object does not change its legal status, the relevant provisions of international space law that are applicable to space objects continue to apply to what is called space debris. This means, in particular, that launching states are internationally liable for damage caused by space debris, including cases where such debris was generated by private spacecraft. The probability of liability becomes even higher when it comes to active space debris removal. Such space activities, which are extensively developed by private companies, are inextricably linked to potential damage. Yet, practical problems arise with identification of space debris and, consequently, an efficient implementation of the liability regime.
Elina Morozova and Alena Laurenava
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.
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.
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.