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.
Space Security Law
International Geopolitics and Space Regulation
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.
Human-Robotic Cooperative Space Exploration
Since the beginning of space exploration, outer space has fascinated, captivated and intrigued people’s mind. The launch of the first artificial satellite—Sputnik—in 1957 by the Soviet Union, and the first man on the Moon in 1969 represent two significant missions in the space exploration history. In 1972, Apollo 17 marked the last human program on the lunar surface. Nevertheless, several robotic spacecrafts traveled to the Moon such as the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976 or more recently China’s Chang’e 4 in 2019 which touched down on its far side, the first time for a space vehicle. The international space community is currently assessing a return to the Moon in 2024 and even beyond in the coming decades, toward the Red Planet, Mars. Robots and rovers, for instance, Curiosity, Philae, Rosetta or Perseverance, will continue to play a major role in space exploration by paving the way for future long-duration missions on celestial bodies. Landing humans on the Moon, Mars, or on other celestial bodies, needs robotics because there are significant challenges to overcome from technological and physiological perspectives. Therefore, the support of machines and artificial intelligence is essential for developing future deep space programs as well as to reach a sustainable space exploration. One can imagine future circumstances where robots and humans are collaborating together on the Moon’s surface or on celestial bodies to undertake scientific research, to extract and to analyze space resources for a possible in situ utilization, as well as to build sites for human habitation and work. Indeed, different situations can be considered: (a) a robot, located on a celestial body, operated by a human on Earth or aboard a space station; (b) the in situ operation of a robot by an astronaut; (c) the interaction between a robot in outer space, manipulated from Earth and an astronaut; (d) the interaction between a robot operated from space and an astronaut; (e) the interaction between a robot with an artificial intelligence component and an astronaut; (f) the interaction between two robots in the case of on-orbit servicing. The principles of free exploration and cooperation are two core concepts in the international space legal framework. Hence, it is necessary to analyse the provisions on the five United Nations space treaties in the context of “human-robotic” cooperation. In addition, the development of a Code of Conduct for space exploration, involving humans and robots, might be needed in order to clearly identify the missions using robotic systems (e.g., mission’s purpose, area of operations) and to foresee scenarios of responsibility and liability in case of damage. Lastly, a review of the dispute settlement mechanisms is particularly relevant as international claims related to human–robot activities will inevitably occur given the fact that their collaboration will increase as more missions are being planned on celestial bodies.
Business, Legal, and Policy Issues in Relation to Increased Private Space Activity
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.
The Outer Space Treaty
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.
Space Law Education and Capacity-Building
David Kuan-Wei Chen
Space activities can bring tremendous benefits to global development and humanity. For the safety, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space, activities and developments in the exploration and use of outer space must therefore be guided by the effective formulation, implementation, and enforcement of law and governance. Concerted and quality space law education and capacity-building efforts are necessary for the cultivation of competent professionals, scholars, and next-generation experts who are cognizant of the emerging issues and challenges posed by the proliferation of space activities and actors in the global commons of outer space. In order to fully grasp space law, it is important to possess a basic understanding of space technology, space applications, and the space environment in which the exploration and use of outer space take place. Not only should space law professionals and scholars be trained in law and have a deep understanding of especially public international law, but the approach to space law education and capacity-building must also be uniquely holistic and interdisciplinary. Hence, education and capacity-building can stimulate international development and cooperation in space activities and contribute to building expertise and capacity in countries with emerging space capabilities.
State Responsibility and Commercial Space Activities
Danielle Ireland-Piper, Makaela Fehlhaber, and Alana Bonenfant
Commercial activity in outer space has increased. However, space is a dual-use environment, with both military and civilian applications. This raises the important question as to the extent to which a nation-state is responsible for the actions of commercial activities undertaken by corporate entities. The international law principles of state responsibility are complex. However, in some circumstances, these principles do create that potential for states to be liable where, for example, a corporate entity is a de facto organ of the state, or where a corporation acts on the instructions of a state or is under its control. The United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, or Outer Space Treaty, provides some guidance on this question. Notwithstanding that, this is an uncertain area of the law, not least because of the complexity of space as an operating environment and complications in determining corporate nationality.
International Liability for Commercial Space Activities and Related Issues of Debris
Elina Morozova and Alena Laurenava
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.
International Satellite Law
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.
International Space Law and Satellite Telecommunications
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.
Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes
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.