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What Are the Laws in Space?

Friday, 3 January 2014

The proliferation of private space enterprises such as Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt’s Planetary Resources and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has got the lawyerly minded in a spin about the legal implications.

Until now manned space exploration has generally been the preserve of national governments due to the technological difficulties and the associated costs. The legalities have therefore been dealt with at international treaty level.

With improvements in technology and the emergence of commercial enterprises willing to shoulder the risks of tackling the space frontier, this far flung area of law is gradually gaining more attention.

The History of Space Law

Although it might not fit the usual definition of a legal practice area, a body was established by the UN to deal with the difficulties of space relations in 1959. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was formed with two sub-committees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. So lawyers have been involved from the very early days.

Various treaties were signed up to in the 1960s and 1970s with the most prominent being the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies; otherwise known as the ‘Outer Space Treaty’.

One of the main aims of the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed during the Cold War, was to prevent the placing of nuclear weapons in space.

How Will Existing Space Laws Deal with Commercial Activities?

The activities proposed by today’s commercial space organisations range from space tourism to space mining. The existing space treaties are unlikely to adequately deal with the potential range of legal issues that might arise from the activities proposed. For one thing the treaties are international treaties between nation states and may not be binding on private enterprises.

Apart from the obvious risks of disaster, there are other issues to be considered such as ownership or mining rights relating to extra-celestial bodies, such as the comets that are the target of proposed mining activities. Peripheral liabilities would also need to be assessed such as damage caused by objects crashing to earth.

Who Are Space’s Legal Experts?

The most experienced body that exists to deal with space related legal issues remains the UN’s COPUOS.

Surprisingly enough though, there is also a growing fraternity of academic legal experts. The University of Mississippi has a professor of Space Law and saw its first student graduate with a space law certificate in 2008. For those wishing to receive such high level qualifications closer to home the University of Sunderland is the first UK institution to offer space law as part of its law course.

For more information about legal issues near to you or far, far away, contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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