The Law And Outer Space: How Do They Interact?

There aren’t any courts in space, but the law doesn’t go away.

If you get hit by a piece of space junk, who’s responsible?

The literal answer to that might be straightforward, but the legal answer might not be so simple. Think about it in the same way as international law: it involves multiple states with different (sometimes conflicting) interests, and politics can dictate the successfulness of cooperation.

Professor Melissa de Zwart, the Dean of Law at Adelaide Law School, has written about the topic. She says we should first look to the Outer Space Treaty.

“The Outer Space Treaty is what I would call the ‘foundation treaty’ of International Space Law. It was formed at a time when there were two space superpowers during the cold war – the US and the USSR,” she says.

“Both of them were competing. First by sending rockets into space, and then by sending humans into space. And at the same time, you had developments in nuclear capabilities… everybody realised, very quickly, that the space domain was unpredictable and fragile. So the problem was, if anyone put weapons of mass destruction in space – or on the moon – it was going to be disastrous for all of humankind.”

The treaty was created to ensure that space should be used for ‘peaceful purposes’. So, putting weapons of mass destruction in space – or permanent installations on the moon – are a no-go.

“It’s (Outer Space Treaty) the most ratified treaty of all of the Space Law treaties. It’s the catch-all one. There were other treaties created from 1967 through to 1979, but there probably won’t be any more multilateral space treaties,” says de Zwart.

“The uses of space have changed over time… the Outer Space Treaty assumes that the only entities that would be wealthy enough – or large enough to go into space – would be governments. They didn’t contemplate that there would be a commercial use of outer space.”

So, where to now?

You’ll need to assess the specific situation you’re in. Was the piece of space junk from one state? Why did it crash land? Did objects from two different states collide to cause damage? A treaty called the Liability Convention provides guidance, and there are also a range of exceptions to consider.

Claims under the Liability Convention are rare. So rare, only one exists: the Government of Canada made a claim to the Soviet Union for $6 million in compensation after its nuclear powered satellite Cosmos 954 crashed in Northern Canada in 1978.

Space, overall, is a cooperative domain.

Regardless of the need to further regulate space, de Zwart is positive about existing law in the area.

“I would say it has been extraordinarily successful,” she says of the Outer Space Treaty.

“A lot of people are worried about things like weaponising satellites or putting a nuclear weapon on a satellite… this is what the Outer Space Treaty recognised; it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to allow the placement of nuclear weapons in space. So, has it been successful? Yes.”

Space junk will be discussed at Hybrid World Adelaide’s Tech Conference. Tickets available now.