Who is responsible for legislation in space?
Hooray, four astronauts made it back safely from the ISS today. Good news, because last year there was some tension on the International Space Station, which had everything to do with the Russia-Ukraine war. Fortunately, the tension in space has subsided somewhat, but now that China’s space station is under construction, we wonder: who actually decides what is and what is not allowed in space?
Outer Space Treaty
Human space adventures started on October 4, 1957 with the Russian Sputnik, after which Americans set foot on the moon for the first time eleven years later. There was a real space race going on at the time and that frightened some people. Partly for this reason, the international treaty ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It’s quite a mouthful, so that soon became just ‘Outer Space Treaty’. This treaty started in 1967 and its main rule is that all countries are free to explore space. Even using it is freely allowed. However, appropriation is not allowed.
In addition, many countries have their own rules when it comes to space. For example, the Americans passed a law in 2015 to ensure that American citizens can appropriate substances in space so that they can mine on an asteroid. We also have our own Space Activities Act in the Netherlands. This states, among other things, that you are not allowed to do certain space activities without a permit from the minister. If you have the permit, it is up to you to do everything you can to prevent an incident. So make sure that there is no easy danger for people, goods and the environment.
Furthermore, in international collaborations, such as the ISS, agreements are drawn up that countries that want to participate must sign. This states, among other things, that if an astronaut attacks another, the country of the person attacked has jurisdiction. Fortunately, that has not been necessary so far. Furthermore, there are actually no criminal law rules for space, not even from the UN. However, there is a Space Liability Convention that says something about when damage is done to spacecraft, or to earth by spacecraft, this is the responsibility of the country from which the launch was launched. When a Russian satellite with a nuclear reactor crashed in Canada in 1978, Canada invoked this liability agreement.
The rules in space may start to change. The US Federal Communications Commission would like to create its own space agency specifically for the infrastructure of communications in space. Consider, for example, the large numbers of satellites that have been launched into space in recent years and in the coming years to enable the Internet of Project Kuiper (Amazon) and Starlink (SpaceX). Anyway, that doesn’t mean that the rules of war about the infinity in which we hang with our planet will change.
At the same time, it says something interesting about the commercialization of space. In the past, when the space law was created, it was only organizations from countries that played a role. Now there is SpaceX, Blue Origin, and so on. In fact, there is a lot of cooperation with commercial parties, because they can contribute new innovation and money for new innovation. But, how does that affect the overall space law?
We won’t be surprised if something is recorded about this in ten years’ time. Preferably sooner, because so many commercial parties probably provide far too much space debris, which may soon make it impossible for us to ever leave our planet. So yes, the FCC may have to wait a while before it opens its shop after all. At the same time, it may be time to stop letting the space be so casual. Not only because there are many tensions on Earth, but also because there are many reasons to want to protect space. It may be big and infinite, but once enough space debris races in orbit around the Earth, the space law becomes superfluous anyway, because we can no longer reach space.
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