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.
Gianfranco Gabriele Nucera
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 this national space legislation became necessary when the first two Austrian satellites were developed, to ensure compliance with Austria’s obligations as State Party to the five United Nations space treaties. The legislation comprehensively regulates legal aspects related to space activities, including the authorization, supervision, and termination of space activities; the registration of space objects; insurance requirements; and possibilities for recourse of the government against the operator. One of the main purposes of the law is to ensure the authorization of national space activities. The Outer Space Act sets forth the 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, and national security, as well as of 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 breakups 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 the support of 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.
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.
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.
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.