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  • Writer's picture Abhinav Bhalla

Introduction to Outer Space Law and Its Treaties

The initiation of space exploration and subsequently its advancement unexpectedly sparked off another field of law known as the law of outer space or the space law. Space law is an area of law that helps in governing activities in outer space and the effects arising out of such activities in relation to mankind.

The signing of the Outer Space Treaty. | United Nations.

The corpus of law that governs space-related activity is known as space law. Space law, like general international law, is made up of a range of international agreements, treaties, conventions, and UN General Assembly resolutions, as well as international organization norms and regulations.

Space law is an integral part of international law and is governed by the UN. In 1958, upon the request of the U.S. President coupled with Soviet Premier, the UN created a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, better known by the name “COPUOS” to look into the legal intricacies related to activities in the exploration of outer space. United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), in particular, is dedicated to defining the scope and extent of space law, at present. The office is responsible for assisting developing countries in using space technology for development and for supporting inter-governmental discussions in the Committee as well as its Subcommittees Namely the Scientific & Technical Subcommittee and Legal Subcommittee.

The preservation of the space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, the resolution of disputes, the rescue of astronauts, the sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, the use of space-related technologies, and international cooperation are all topics covered by space law. The notion of space as the domain of all humanity, the freedom of exploration and use of outer space by all states without discrimination, and the principle of non-appropriation of outer space are all important principles that drive the conduct of space activities.

The basic structure of space law is dependent upon five UN Treaties and another five sets of Principles adopted by the UN. Although there are innumerable resolutions to this effect, the principles and treaties mentioned below provide for the most significant and substantive portion of space law.

There are five international treaties underpinning space law, overseen by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS).

1. The Outer Space Treaty

“Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”

The treaty is the foundation of international space law for signatory nations (108 in 2019). The treaty presents principles for space exploration and operation:

· Space activities are for the benefit of all nations, and any country is free to explore orbit and beyond.

· There is no claim for sovereignty in space; no nation can “own” space, the Moon or any other body.

· Weapons of mass destruction are forbidden in orbit and beyond, and the Moon, the planets, and other celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes.

· Any astronaut from any nation is an “envoy of mankind,” and signatory states must provide all possible help to astronauts when needed, including emergency landing in a foreign country or at sea.

· Signatory states are each responsible for their space activities, including private commercial endeavors, and must provide authorization and continuing supervision.

· Nations are responsible for damage caused by their space objects and must avoid contaminating space and celestial bodies.

2. The Rescue Agreement

“The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space”

Signatories agree to take all possible actions to help or rescue astronauts in need, and if applicable, return them to the nation from which they launched. Additionally, signatories agree to help return to the sponsoring nation any space objects that land on Earth outside of the country from which they were launched.

3. The Moon Agreement

“The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”

The Agreement states that celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes, that they should not be contaminated, that the UN should always be made aware of any station on a non-Earth body, and that if resource mining on the Moon becomes feasible, an international regime must be established to govern how those resources are obtained and used. The United States is not a signatory of the Moon Agreement.

4. The Liability Convention

“The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects”

Signatories take full liability for any damage caused by their space objects and agree to standard procedures for adjudicating damage claims.

5. The Registration Convention

“The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space”

Expanding a space object register, the Convention empowers the UN Secretary-General to maintain a register of all space objects.

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