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date: 28 May 2020

Registration of Space Objects

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Space objects are subject to registration in order to allocate “jurisdiction and control” over those objects in the sovereign-free environment of outer space. This approach is similar to the registration of ships in view of the high sea and for aircrafts with respect to the international airspace. Registration is one of the basic principles of space law, starting with UN General Assembly Resolution 1721 B (XVI) of December 20, 1961, followed by Resolution 1962 (XVIII) of December 13, 1963, then formulated in Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and as specified in the Registration Convention of 1975. Registration of space objects can be seen today as a principle of customary international law, relevant for each spacefaring state. Registration is divided into a national and an international level. The State Party establishes a national registry for its space objects, and those registrations have to be communicated via diplomatic channel to the UN Register of space objects. This UN Register is handled by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and is an open source of information for space objects worldwide. Registration is linked to the so-called launching state of the relevant space object. There might be more than one launching state for the specific launch event, but only one state actor can register a specific space object. The state of registry gains “jurisdiction and control” over the space object and therefore no double registration is permissible.

Based on the established UN Space Law, registration practice was subject to some adaptions due to technical developments and legal challenges. After the privatization of the major international satellite organizations, a number of non-registrations had to be faced. The state actors reacted with the UN Registration Practice Resolution of 2007 as elaborated in the Legal Subcommittee of UNCOPUOS, the Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. In this context an UNOOSA Registration Information Submission Form had been developed. Today the complexity of launch activities and the concepts of mega-constellations lead to new challenges to the registration system. The Registration Practice Resolution already recommends that in cases of joint launches, each space object should be registered separately. Registration of space objects is a legal instrument in the context of state responsibility; it is not an instrument of traffic management. The orbit information of the registration system is indicative for identification purposes but not real-time positioning information. Such traffic management information follows different rules.