There is a special framework created for international space law. Known as the Outer Space Treaty, this document entered into force on the 10th of October in 1967. It is important to keep in mind that this treaty was signed when the space industry had just begun. It has since become a guide for the peaceful use and exploration of space. The treaty gives ground rules about what activities are allowed in space and on other worlds. We have just passed the 50th anniversary of the treaty's entrance into legal force. 107 countries are participating in this treaty and 23 others have signed the treaty but have not completed ratification. This means that these 23 countries (including Bolivia, Malaysia, and multiple African states) have not fully consented, so they are not legally bound to the treaty.
Image: the United Nations
The Outer Space Treaty contains only 17 articles (or agreements). Other important international law treaties contain many more. For example, the Geneva Conventions is made up of four treaties and was ratified in part or in whole by 196 countries. These agreements protect, in times of war and conflict, those who are no longer or are not participating in the respective fight (like those who are wounded, sick, prisoners of war, or civilians). These rules and protocols contain hundreds of articles. It even contains 63 articles dedicated to war at sea. Another comparable international agreement is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This came in to force in 1994 and joins 167 countries and the European Union in agreement. It established the responsibilities and rights of states to their use of the oceans. This includes guidelines for natural the management of natural resources and conducting business activities. It contains over 320 articles.
Although only containing 17 articles, the Outer Space Treaty is purposefully simple because its intention was to make general agreements about the use of space as technology advanced. This makes the Treaty increasingly relevant today because of how quickly the space industry is developing new technologies and capabilities. Some key aspects of the treaty include:
-All countries hold free access to space, as the exploration of space should be for peaceful purposes and for the benefit/interest everyone.
-Space and other bodies (including moons and planets) cannot be claimed by a country. This means, for example, that a particular country cannot claim the moon as its own.
-A participating country to the treaty cannot place a weapon of mass destruction in Earth's orbit, nor can they be placed on or around another body in space.
-Celestial bodies cannot be used to test weapons.
-Countries are tasked with avoiding the harmful contamination of celestial bodies, including Earth. Therefore anything returned from space must not harm our planet.
-A country is considered responsible or liable for any damages caused by their space object, including industry activities not undertaken by government.
This treaty has recently seen controversy because there are various companies that wish to mine space objects for resources. In 2015, The United States Congress passed the “Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”, which gives United States-based companies the rights to anything they collect from space (such as metals or water from an asteroid). This Act argues that the Outer Space Treaty does not expressly prohibit such activities, but some argue this interpretation.
The Outer Space Treaty is the first of 5 international agreements in the area of space law. Another treaty is that of the Moon Treaty. Formally, the treaty is called the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. This treaty is not officially ratified by any country that conducts space activities, meaning it has little to no effect on actual spaceflight activities. Intended to follow the Outer Space Treaty, this Moon Treaty also aimed to be comparable to the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. For example, it declares that the moon and other celestial bodies are for the benefit of everyone and it aimed to prevent the moon from becoming a source of international conflict. Of its 21 articles, the treaty also aimed to ban the use of all military activity on celestial bodies, to allow equal rights to research on all celestial bodies, ensure that any returned samples can be accessible to all, to ban claims of and to prevent environmental
contamination. The main reason for disagreement and why no countries legally committed to this treaty is the article about extracted samples and resources. The treaty requires all samples, including the technology used to extract them, must be shared internationally when it is brought back to Earth. Even though the treaty was entered into force in 1984, it had little effect because the eleven countries that agreed to it over the years have not conducted space activities. No major space countries (such as the United States, Russia, China or Japan) have signed the treaty.
Another agreement is that of the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which entered into force in December 1968. The agreement was created to build on parts of articles 5 and 8 of the Outer Space Treaty. Generally, this Agreement says that agreeing countries must take all measures to rescue an astronaut if in a case of distress, regardless of the astronaut’s home country. Also, upon request, countries will help recover space objects if they return to Earth outside of the country that they were launched from. This agreement has been ratified by nearly all states worldwide, including the major spacefaring nations.
Two other conventions have created an understanding about the registration and damage of space objects. Entered into force in September of 1972, the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects also elaborated on a specific article of the Outer Space Treaty. This convention is largely ratified worldwide and a file was even claimed under this convention in 1978 by Canada, when the Soviet nuclear-powered satellite Kosmos 954 landed in its territory. The second convention, the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, entered into force in 1976 and has since been ratified by over 60 countries, including all spacefaring nations. This negotiation aims to create a way to identify objects sent into space and gives responsibility of these objects.