UNOOSA’s Five Outer Space Treaties (Laws)

By Sarnith Varun

October 12, 2022
officials signing outer space treaty
Signing of The Outer Space Treaty January 1967. Credit: UNOOSA

Are there Laws in Space? 

“Space Law” can be imagined as a court for activities happening in space and yes they do exist although not very well developed currently.

It has a set of rules, restrictions, laws, and principles that need to be followed according to the 5 primary sets of treaties (which we will discuss in detail in this article developed by the UN1.

Along with this set of laws, there are general agreements, different programs, and conventions between the participating organizations.

Space Laws address possible conflicts and matters that are caused by space activities.

Conflicts can be associated with several space activities:

  • Contamination of earth
  • Possession of a particular celestial object by a state
  • Disputes between the space administrations
  • Rescuing astronauts during periods of emergency
  • Using space-related instruments
  • Access to information is some function that space law supervises.

So, space law is like a guidebook stating the fundamentals Do’s and Don’ts for any individual or organization when it’s undertaking any space activity. 

Space Law Firms – Who Enforces Space Laws?

Space Laws are enforced by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which is headquartered in Vienna, Austria, and was established in December 1958. 

The goals of UNOOSA are straightforward, which is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space and in the utilization of space science and technology for sustainable economic and social development2.

UNOOSA has put out a set of fundamental laws, and multiple treaties related to various possible space issues and matters.

Whoever breaks the space law, is answerable to UNOOSA and will be prosecuted by the court and law of the particular country from which the spacecraft has been registered or the country where the person is a citizen.

The website of UNOOSA includes information about additional programs other than the outer space treaty such as the Space4youth, Space4water, space4women programs, and much more.

List of 5 Outer Space Law Treaties

There are mainly 5 Space Law treaties referred to as “five United Nations treaties on outer space”:

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These outer space treaties are focused on freedom of exploration of space, preventing exploitation of celestial bodies, preventing the use of deadly arms in orbit, and rescuing the ‘envoys of mankind’ aka astronauts, maintaining proper registration of space activities. 

The common notion is to benefit mankind, enhance its well-being, and promote international cooperation and unity.   

Let us have a look at these laws in detail, one by one. 

The 1967 “Outer Space Treaty”

The Outer Space Treaty made effective on 10 October 1967, consists of fundamental principles that need to be followed by all countries which have signed the treaty regarding the use of celestial bodies, space exploration, or any activity which is conducted in space.

The Outer Space Treaty has been signed by 112 countries including India.

60 countries have not signed The Outer Space Treaty, some names include Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan.

23 countries like Iran, Malaysia, and Singapore have signed the treaty but have not ratified (made valid) the treaty yet.

9 Principles of The Outer Space Treaty

The Outer Space treaty has a total of 9 principles under it. 3

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • 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 the 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.

Help Save our Astronauts! – The Rescue Agreement

The Rescue Agreement (entered into force. on 3rd December 1968) says the state should cooperate fully for the rescue of astronauts and vessels during the time of emergency, crash landings, and rescuing of the astronauts.

The states shall help in all possible ways (upon request) to save the lives of astronauts. 

It is not only for the rescue of Astronauts but also for the rescue of space capsules, vessels, and objects that land outside the territory of the landing site.

Register Before you Launch – Registration Convention 

The Registration Convention came into force on the 15th of September, 1976.

It was designed upon the demands after the rescue agreement, TOST, and the liability convention. 

It is for the easier identification of all the space objects that are launched.

The secretary general of the UN is assigned to maintain the proper registration of all the space objects launched, provided by States and international intergovernmental organizations.

It’s also necessary for the information provided by States and international intergovernmental organizations to be fully accessible to each other. 

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It also discusses the state’s responsibilities towards the objects they launch.

Liability Convention

The Liability Convention states that the launching state is liable to pay compensation for damages that the space object may cause to the properties on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft, and liable for damage due to its faults in space. 

Countries have responsibility for all the space objects that they launch.

This means that even if the space object is not in the launching state, it is still responsible for the damage it caused. 

If two countries worked together to launch the space object which caused the damage, then the damaged state can complain against any one of the countries. 

Don’t Harm the Moon – Moon Agreement 

The Moon Agreement is a reassurance of the laws mentioned in TOST. 

It states that the Moon should be used for peaceful purposes only.

Its environment should not be contaminated, it should not be destroyed by any mission by any state.

The moon and its resources are for the common good of man and not for any particular state.

The UN general assembly should be informed about any object that is going to be stationed on the moon. 

Its exact location of landing and the purpose of the object stationed on the moon should be mentioned to the UN. 

Why are Space Laws Important? 

“When I orbited the Earth in a spaceship, I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is. Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it!” –  Yuri Gagarin

You see on our little blue planet, every activity which makes use of public resources such as forests, rivers, lakes, and others, is governed and protected properly (well, at least in theory) while also allowing equal rights and opportunities for everyone to make economical benefits out of it. 

Basically to make sure that no individual or group invades these bodies and makes them their own.

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Nature and its resources are for everyone. Simple, right?

Space Laws for Protecting Celestial Objects

If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that even the sun, the moon, and asteroids aka celestial bodies are also products of nature!

And indeed, It’s absolutely necessary to protect them, and make them available for everyone equally, but for peaceful reasons only.

We need to realize that even for scientific research, we shall not destroy these bodies at any cost (Unless it gets really close to us and tries to perish us all) because there are a lot more resources that are obtainable from these celestial objects, so it makes sense to make complete use of it. 

This is one of the primary goals of UNOOSA, to make sure that no organization destroys any celestial body during its space missions.

Without restrictions, any celestial body, not only the moon, could be destroyed. 

This may not be the only reason why we need space laws.

Laws for Resolving Conflicts in Outer Space

Astronauts go through intense training and do a lot of hard work and sacrifice for the love of science, so it’s very unlikely that such an event would occur.

Suppose an astronaut of one nation, say “Sokovia” punches another astronaut from “Wakanda” right in the face.

Let us say that was a hard punch and too much for our little Wakandan to handle. 

If this was on earth, we would have the necessary actions taken against the Sokovian for violent acts.

So, If the incident happened in a United States space capsule, then the United States will take care of that matter. 

But what happens if it happens in some celestial body in space?

What laws would be applicable there?

We need a common governing body that is fair to resolve matters like this. 

So, the answer is a gigantic yes.

We do need a set of laws to prevent the exploitation of space and to prevent any sort of violent acts. 

Well, there haven’t been extreme crimes in space till now.

Although, in 2019 Astronaut Anne McClain on the ISS at that time, was accused of unlawfully accessing her spouse’s bank records4.

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It’s considered to be the only space crime till now but later, in August 2020 the charges against Astronaut McClain were dismissed.

Astronaut Anne McClain is now a member of the NASA Artemis Astronauts.

Necessary Space Laws Due to Increasing Space Travel

Companies are aiming to make humanity a “multi-planetary species”(species inhabiting two or more planets) when space travel finally becomes more prominent and accessible to regular people.

So let us imagine that in the future (at least not in the upcoming 50 years), our relatives, friends, and family won’t just be in different countries but on different planets.

Yes, we might have “planet of birth” on our passports! 

We may have to commute to these planets by public space transport. 

We can interpret that humanity will be advanced and everybody will have access to space just like any other public transport. 

So, a set of space laws and protocols will be enforced upon us, just for humanity’s safety and convenience.

Commercial Space Laws & Regulation

Space Tourism Laws

In the current decade, space tourism may not be that prominent mainly because there aren’t many space tourism packages available at affordable prices. 

Companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Boeing are working intensively on making space tourism mainstream.

There are already space tourism packages out there by these companies and each of these packages is described on their respective websites5.

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But let us be honest, despite their best efforts to make it as affordable as possible, it would still be way out of hand for ordinary people. 

Space tourism will be a thing only for the billionaires (at least in its early days) but we should not ignore the fact that people will still be ready to go on these short trips.

When technology advances, the prices will drop relatively. 

When more and more civilians enter space, there is more possibility of conflict and an increase in the chances of accidents. 

There will be one day when space travel will not just be for pleasure but for necessity. 

Space Mining Laws & Regulations 

Space Mining is going to be a huge industry in the future.

We all are aware of the number of resources that are available in the rest of the solar system. 

Resources and minerals are available vastly in the celestial bodies of the solar system which are very scarce here on earth.

There’s plenty of water available, and rare metals on asteroids and we will soon start our space mining journey right from our moon.

As we discovered water in the form of ice on the Lunar Poles, there could also be possibilities of harnessing fuels from asteroids.

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Former CEO of Amazon and Founder of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos believes in using other planets for industries and using earth as just a residential planet.

The Artemis Mission by NASA aims to put humans back on the moon after 1972 but this time, the Artemis Crew will build a base on the moon’s South Pole during the Artemis 3 mission, which is expected to be launched in the year 20256.

Every other space agency has some plans of harnessing these minerals in the future. 

If space mining has such potential, why aren’t we already working on space mining? 

In fact, Business tycoons are working towards making space mining mainstream7.

But, we need to accept that we do not have the necessary technology to make space mining feasible. 

Transportation isn’t the problem here, with reusable rockets it becomes a lot cheaper (relatively) but we do not have the appropriate means to extract matter like water and minerals.

The surface of these asteroids and planets is unlike the soil of the earth and thus poses a challenge to the machinery used.

Outer Space Treaty Loopholes – Problems in Space Laws

Space laws aren’t perfect.

In modern times, for the level of our advancement, we can say that we have the necessary space laws in force. 

But what about the future?

We can use the above sections as a reference when discussing the faults in space laws. 

We figured that we do need space laws when space tourism and space mining get more and more prominent we will require the space laws.

But, there aren’t any space laws regarding travel to space!

Or a specific set of space laws for space mining yet! 

In fact, we are not even sure if any such laws are in development and in discussion at the UN.

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These laws will be really essential in the future when we have the necessary technology for feasible outer space travel.

Well, It’s always better to plan ahead!

According to UNOOSA, the state is responsible for the acts of both governmental and non-governmental entities.

Every country has started investing in the space sector and hence is allowing private individuals to carry out missions. 

There is no doubt that they bring newer technology and advancement to the field but an increase in the involvement of space missions by individuals will allow possible violation of space laws. 

Although Private individuals are answerable to the state, they are not directly answerable to UNOOSA.

Private space companies could also be required to sign the Outer Space Treaty and take responsibility for their acts rather than the state itself.

Or the government should be stricter when it comes to authorizing private individuals to carry out space missions. 

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Space Debris – A Challenge to Launching Satellites 

While the increase in Space Debris is also becoming a huge concern, UNOOSA hasn’t shown much care in regulating and minimizing the space debris left behind by dead satellites, leftover rocket stages, micro-satellites, broken parts of rockets, and other debris. 

Space Debris can cause collisions of active satellites with dead satellites.

Launching a satellite would become a very tough task if space debris accumulated at the same rate as today.

According to the US Space surveillance network, over 15,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 cm in diameter are present in orbit while 200,000 pieces of space junk less than 10 cm are floating in space8.

China has been the major contributor to space junk by putting almost 7.5 debris pieces for each payload. 

Laws that restrict organizations to allow only a certain amount of space junk would be a great effort to reduce the rise in space debris. 

Space Laws Favor US-based Companies to Extract Resources 

The US commercial space launch competitiveness act council 2015. 9

Allowed US-based companies to obtain resources from any celestial body to keep it as their own.

The US Government argues that this is not a direct violation of the outer space treaty which states that only the celestial body should not be appropriated, it says nothing

about exploiting its resources. 

While some say that there is nothing wrong with what the US Government follows, some countries do feel that this violates the outer space treaty. 

Peace & Harmony in Space (and) Exploration

From what we have discussed in this article so far, is that all these space laws are implemented to maintain peace during the “space age”.

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Ultimately we can conclude that when privatization occurs in the field of space, more and more laws will be required and it’s very clear that the modern-day laws are insufficient for the future era of space exploration. 

For the survival of all mankind, we need to work together.

The Space Race started as a competition between the soviets and the Americans, the beginning era of space exploration was heavily influenced by the idea of “who is going to space first”10.

But in the modern era, we need to set aside our differences and start working for the entirety of mankind. 

The field of science and technology has always been filled with politics, jealousy, and the fight for credit.

But today science is the escape from all the differences between nations.

Science should be seen as a medium to unite and work together and one particular field which has the best potential to unite separated lands is the Space Exploration field. 

Active Collaboration should be welcomed by each space organization while also making sure that the space exploration field doesn’t become a vector of destruction. 

It is only peace, harmony, and proper governance that will help humanity be a co-existing multi-planetary species.

Recommendations

Sarnith Varun, ‘The Outer Space Treaty‘, Evincism

Sarnith Varun, ‘Space Tourism – Commercial Era of Space Travel‘, Evincism

References

  1. Space Law’, UNOOSA, “Space law can be described as the body of law (…)of international organizations.”[]
  2. About us’, UNOOSA, 21 January 2015, “The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) works to promote (…)development”[]
  3. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’, UNOOSA[]
  4. Mike Baker, ‘NASA Astronaut Anne McClain Accused by Spouse of Crime in Space‘, The New York Times, 23 August 2019, “A complaint involving bank access from the space station is just one of a number of complex legal issues that have emerged in the age of routine space travel, issues that are expected to grow with the onset of space tourism.”[]
  5. Elizabeth Howell, ‘Space tourism took a giant leap in 2021: Here’s 10 milestones from the year’, Space.com, 27 December 2021, “With 2022 also set to be busy, between more tourist flights and the expected addition of company Axiom Space”[]
  6. Leonard David, ‘Where will NASA set up its moon base?‘, Space.com, 1 July 2022, “There has been stimulating work done recently on finding an address for Artemis Base Camp, but researchers are trying to home in on sites that offer the best combination of attributes”[]
  7. Loren Grush, ‘How an international treaty signed 50 years ago became the backbone for space law‘, The Verge, 27 January 2017, “The problem now is that companies are becoming even more ambitious.”[]
  8. Erik Gregersen, ‘space debris‘, Britannica, 31 January 2022, “As of 2021, the United States Space Surveillance Network (…)millions of pieces smaller than 1 cm.”[]
  9. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015’, Wikipedia, “The update to US law explicitly allows US citizens and industries to “engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources” including water and minerals.”[]
  10. Space Race‘, Wikipedia, “The Space Race was a 20th-century competition between two Cold War rivals, (…)following World War II” (Accessed:26 September 2022) []
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