Tuesday, January 15, 2019
From Elon Musk’s Tesla to military satellites and more, Space is becoming exponentially more congested each year.
A small American start-up company called “Swarm Technologies” recently approached the US satellite regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, seeking permission to launch a series of “SpaceBees”; 10cm x 10cm transmitters capable of sending and receiving radio signals but which had no GPS capability. The lack of any tracking meant the company couldn’t reliably predict where in orbit the satellites were at any time. The SpaceBees therefore posed a significant collision threat, endangering other objects or astronauts in orbit such as the 200 Billion Dollar International Space Station and its crew. When the US authority refused to grant them permission, the company launched the SpaceBees from India anyway.
The SpaceBees only have a 4 year lifespan after which they effectively become ‘space junk’. Space junk is a real danger. Ultimately it must either be dragged down to Earth gradually over time due to gravity’s effect or collide with other assets in space. Falling space junk can hit aircraft, land in oceans causing pollution or on land endangering civilian life and property.
Despite the risks of utilising space there is surprisingly little law or regulation to promote safe practices and punish unsafe or reckless behavior by private companies, militaries and governments.
Space law is the body of law applicable to and governing space-related activities. It includes a diverse range of matters such as the preservation of the space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, settlement of disputes, protection of national interests, rescue of astronauts, sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, use of space-related technologies and international cooperation in space.
The classical rules of international law on sovereignty (a State can do as it pleases within its’ borders) and territory delimitation simply don’t apply to outer space and celestial bodies such as moons, asteroids, comets and meteors.
The major body of law applicable to space is the Outer Space Treaty created by the United Nations in 1967. Since then, 103 countries have signed the treaty including Australia, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. The major features of the treaty are:
- No weapons of mass destruction in space;
- No military bases on the moon either.
Some further treaties have also further the laws to include:
- The nation which launches a satellite is responsible for it, including if the satellite causes loss or damage. However, if space junk or an un-track-able satellite damages (or destroys) your spacecraft it may be difficult to prove who it belonged to;
- Nations must take all reasonable steps to assist and/or rescue astronauts in distress and subsequently aid them in returning to their launch location;
- No one can own land in space, including the moon. None of the major space powers (i.e. the US, Russia and China) have ratified this treaty.
Space is an exciting and increasingly important area of legal development and we hope to see the international community collaborate to deliver significant regulation and clarification within the next few years.