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date: 11 December 2019

International Space Law and Satellite Telecommunications

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.

International space law is a branch of international law, which 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 (the 1967 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 integral parts of modern human life, of which satellite telecommunications remains among 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 ensures instant delivery of huge amounts of data, relay of real-time voice and video, broadcasting of radio and television, and Internet access worldwide. It is telecommunications satellites that, by transmitting signals over a distance, connect locations on the surface of the 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 ownership, jurisdiction and control, registration, liability, debris mitigation, and more. Therefore, four out of five United Nations space treaties, specifically, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty; the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space; 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 the United Nations General Assembly’s resolutions, compose a large group of international law rules that apply to satellite telecommunications.

To carry out a communication function, satellites need to be placed in a certain orbit and use the radio-frequency spectrum, both being limited natural resources. Access to such increasingly sought-for parts of outer space, 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 United Nations’ 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 the times, triggered by a growing number of states and nonstate actors, which place priority on satellite telecommunications and a continuous application of the latest technical advances. These tangible changes need to be addressed in the regulatory framework that cannot but serve as a driver for further development of satellite telecommunications.