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  • Writer's pictureLeah Sacks

Exploring Space Law

Several months ago, as I began my PhD, I decided to take advantage of a one-week class offered at my university on Space Law, taught by Professor Valerie Oosterveld. As a planetary scientist, my interest in all things space is undeniable, but I wanted to pursue this opportunity to see outer space exploration from a different perspective. What I found was kind of fascinating. There are many topics regarding outer space that scientists commonly only think about as they relate to research or mission work. Participating in the class showed me which things law students gave priority in contrast to the thoughts of myself and other planetary science graduate students. But it also allowed me to see where scientists can contribute to a better understanding of the importance of certain laws and the need for new ones. In this blog post, I wanted to give a brief overview of some of the topics we covered in the course and spread some awareness about subjects that I think all planetary scientists should know.


As the American and Soviet space agencies began to engage in the space race, the leaders of the world saw the need for there to be laws about the use of outer space. Within the framework of the United Nations, they formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and set about forming agreements amongst the leading world powers. Some have argued, perhaps correctly, that space law really ended up being defined by the wishes of the leading space powers. At the time, this was the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Most world leaders, while trying to protect their own interests, were concerned about the rising tensions between the two countries. Once the Soviet Union and American leaders were able to agree, many other countries fell in with their positions. To this day COPUOS governs the use of space so far as it concerns the United Nations (UN). However, much of space law has moved beyond the UN, as most countries no longer feel the pressure to agree and form laws regarding space that they did during the rise of the space powers and the space race.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967

The Outer Space Treaty, or OST as it is commonly abbreviated, is the foundation of essentially all space law. This was the first of five major treaties enacted in the 60's and 70's. While covering each of the articles in the treaty is beyond the scope of this blog post, I am going to summarize some of the key main points, though many of them are expanded upon by later treaties, which I mention below. I will be summarizing some of the main points in my own words and they should not be taken to necessarily hold strictly the same meaning as the exact language within the treaty itself.

  • Space shall be used for peaceful uses only

  • Space belongs to everyone, no country or organization can own parts of space

  • We shall protect Earth from contamination by space and space from harmful contamination by Earth

  • Astronauts are "envoys of all mankind" and are therefore afforded specific treatment by all countries (in specific circumstances)

  • Those who launch spacecraft will be responsible for any damage done by that spacecraft

While these are not all of the points in the treaty, they are some of the main ones. Most space laws and space agreements that have originated since the time of this treaty (1967) are based in the language of the OST.

The Other Four Treaties

The other four treaties signed in the haste to establish a framework of law during the space race are as follows:

  • The Liability Convention - Covers a more detailed framework for who is responsible for covering damage in certain situations regarding space objects.

  • The Registration Convention - Specifies requirements for those launching and operating space objects in regards to registering those objects and their operators.

  • The Rescue Agreement - Discusses the treatment of objects and astronauts in need of assistance, particularly if they end up on another country's territory.

  • The Moon Treaty or Moon Agreement - Covers the use and treatment of the moon in more explicit detail.

The first four treaties, the OST and the first three above, were signed by the majority of states and more have since signed as well. However, this is not the case for the Moon Treaty, which has only been signed by a minority of countries and has not been signed by the major space powers (neither those of the time nor those today). This is likely due to a lack of desire to be bound by a formal agreement and the governing body established by the treaty regarding their uses of the Moon. Particularly, the leading space powers do not wish interference with their desires regarding space mining, especially on the moon.

Satellites and Communications

One of the most common thoughts that I had in the early days of the course, was that many people do not think about their own everyday use of space. It had not even occurred to me, a planetary scientist, that space law governs the use, launch, and orbits of satellites and other objects that we use for internet and communication every day. Things like GPS, satellite radio, internet, and other communications are governed by space law whenever they involve satellites, which is common. Whole sections of space law and whole organizations are devoted to and define where satellites can orbit, who can launch satellites, how many satellites, which frequencies they will use, and other similar topics. It has been decided that orbits are a limited natural resource, and so their use has to be fairly distributed to everyone, in accordance with the OST and its requirements on the use of space. While I won't elaborate on this topic further, it was slightly mind-blowing for me to think about this portion of space law that had never occurred to me before.

Militarization and Weaponization of Space

Due to the concerns at the time regarding the Cold War and the major space powers, the OST designates that space must be used for peaceful purposes and specifically, that nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction may not be placed on spacecraft. However, further exploration of this topic has led primarily to the first statement meaning that weapons and "technology demonstrations" are allowed on spacecraft if they are used for "peaceful purposes" or to test their space fairing capability. This is a segment of space law that is still open to a lot of interpretation and many are calling for further international space laws to regulate the weaponization of space before it becomes a problem. Again, it is beyond the scope of this blow post to elaborate further on all of the specific issues in this category of space law, but further specific issues exist, and this is a largely ambiguous portion of the law.

Space Debris

This portion of space law is largely an issue due to the treaties regarding liability and registration. Essentially, space debris is a growing problem. The number of abandoned and broken spacecraft in orbit is ever growing and will soon cause issues for those wishing to launch new space craft. However, the existing treaties prohibit someone from clearing all of the debris, as the individual pieces are still in the control and the responsibility of the registering and launching states from their original launch. Further space law is needed to determine how space debris will be dealt with, but countries are again loathe to cede control to an overhead governing body.

Space Mining and Space Commercialization and Habitation

I have combined these topics together due to their common issue. Each of these topics is a debate in space law due to both their appeal and their difficulty. Specifically, many people on Earth find the idea of mining space, exploring space, and having human bases in space to be both exciting and profitable. However, due to the OST and later space law, each of these issues deals with the problem that space belongs to everyone and must be available for use by everyone, present and future. This leads to problems with the idea of setting up locations in space to be used by space organizations or mining companies if they are not open to use by everyone. This is currently a major hot topic, particularly with regards to the Artemis Accords, which have taken steps to try and further define space law around this topic and allow for use of the moon for some of these practices. Again, I won't be going into all of the details as this blog post is already quite long, but definitely take a look into it if you are interested! Or email me if you would like me to point you in the direction of some resources.

Closing Thoughts

Much of space law today is defined by agreements between specific countries or by the idea that if you do something enough times it becomes a law. I have mostly covered the international treaties in this post and their effects on major topics in space law, but there is still more to learn!

As I said at the end of one the previous paragraphs, each of these topics is very interesting and there is a lot of material and nuance to understand regarding each of them. This blog post is quite long already and I won't be going into detail about each of them, but I am happy to point people in appropriate directions if they are interested in learning more. So feel free to reach out via email, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

My time in the space law class really made me think about many things that I take for granted or don't consider with regard to my own use of space, both personally and professionally. I hope I've managed to make any readers think about them too. I'm continuing my own exploration of more of space law and I would recommend it to anyone, but particularly to other planetary scientists.

Sneak peak: GIS functions?....Tectonics....? Canyons....? Who knows?

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