Understanding the International Agreements on the utilization of Outer Space

outer space

From SpaceX to Blue Origins to Virgin Galactic, humans are looking to the stars and dreaming of earthly goals – economically, technologically, politically.

What does it take to provide high-speed internet across the globe? How soon will commercial spaceflight be equivalent to taking a regular flight? When will we colonize another planet?

And most importantly, what laws will govern us in outer space?

For clarity, outer space refers to all that lies beyond the currently undefined upper limit of a state’s sovereign airspace. As it happens, there is already a manner of international space law in place.

In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) was signed and ratified by the US, the Soviet Union and 63 other participants of the United Nations on the 27th January. India did so in March of the same year, however, it was another fifteen years (1982) before the Indian Parliament ratified the document.

The context of this treaty was the Cold War which saw the US and the USSR fighting for supremacy in space just as they did on Earth. Political and social contest found a new arena and it was deemed necessary to lay down legislation to make sure that space would remain a pristine environment dedicated to endeavours of a scientific, exploratory and humanitarian nature. The essential aim of this treaty was to prevent the weaponization of outer space.

The treaty banned certain military activities such as the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and on celestial bodies. It established each state’s ownership of and responsibility for space projectiles and components and urged common participation in the protection of space and terrestrial environments. The OST also provided for open observation and inspection of each state’s activities and installations by others. 

Some key pointers from the international document are:

  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as envoys of mankind
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies

 

To support the Outer Space Treaty, four other treaties were put into place in the 1960s and 1970s in order to support peaceful space exploration. These treaties are:

  1. The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space
  2. The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects
  3. The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space
  4. The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies

Following this, the UN General Assembly recognized in the ‘Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space’ the “common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.”

The OST and following agreements, therefore, laid the foundations for all international efforts in space thus far.

On 29 January 1998, another milestone was reached. A tangible example of international unity is the coordination and effort required to build and maintain the International Space Station. The low Earth orbit space station is a joint project between five space agencies: NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada).

Since then the dawn of the New Space Age has seen private players enter the industry and reinvigorate the popular imagination. By developing the Antrix Corporation, which is the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, India also wants to establish itself as a significant player in the international space market. However, before that is possible, comprehensive international and national legislation is required to cover a wide range of issues.

UN treaties are nonbinding and although there is international pressure to enforce them, there is an increasing number of challenges that previous regulations cannot maintain a check over. There are a number of problems that need to be addressed with regards to humans utilizing outer space, some old and some new, such as space debris, mining rights on asteroids or planets, boundary disputes*, and satellite interference in astronomical observations.

Therefore, initiatives like SpaceX’s Starlink project which seeks to provide global internet coverage by 2021 via building a satellite constellation around the planet, have immense potential for societal betterment. But they also have drawbacks such as Starlink satellites, which have already begun to affect astronomical observations from Earth due to their reflectivity.

The New Space Age, therefore, requires a new set of regulations that is fit to deal with the challenges of today’s geopolitics and rapidly increasing technological capabilities. An enforceable system of checks and balances is necessary, which although difficult, nations with space-faring capabilities must resolve to come together and build a system of governance that can ensure the shared benefits and responsibility of humankind’s activities that lie beyond the layers of the atmosphere surrounding our only home.

*Although the OST states that space and celestial bodies cannot be claimed by nations, one isn’t sure how this plays out with reference to private companies.

This blog was authored by Kartikeya Saigal.