International Space Law

I not sure if this topic should be here or in general. Please move if appropriate.

Last summer I read the treaty and thought that the international space treaty sounds very noble.
In 1967 The General Assembly of The United Nations, Office For Outer Space Affairs met.There are five international treaties and five sets of principles on space related activities. Read them here:

Space Law Treaties and Principles.

The status of international agreements relating to activities in outer space is compiled and distributed every year by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. The most recent compilation is available below. Their in pdf so many probably won’t bother reading them. I’m going to download the 2021 to see what’s going on.

Did you know that according to The Union Of Concerned Scientists 2,666 operational satellites circled the globe in April of 2020. (My bolding.)

In July of 2020, the FCC granted approval for Jeff Bezos’s tech company Blue Origin aims to launch and operate an internet constellation of 3,236 satellites. For more facts about what’s going on in outer space refer to this link. It is amazing and deeply troubling at the time. According to experts bout 60% of those are defunct satellites. Think about 60 percent of space junk is floating around littering outer space. Only about 40% are operational. Why didn’t the UN Space Affairs make a law that once your satellites or non functional equipment be retrieved, recycled or repurposed? Every year they meet and ratify and add more amendments. I would think this would be a top priority. Look what we have done to Earth. Another question comes to mind. Does anyone or any corporation own Earth’s orbit? Will it be for sale in the future? I ask a lot of questions and wonder why the powers that be don’t ask the general population our views? If you want information you have to search for it.
What suggestions and thoughts do you have to make the future of outer space and life on Mars better than Earth? Will humans repeat the same or worse mistakes in outer space?

So, the United Nations can’t really make “laws” governing space because it is not a fundamentally sovereign body; that is, all authority the United Nations has comes from that agreed to by its members and the treaties and alliances they are signatories to. There are certain organizations under the umbrella of the United Nations, most relevant here being the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which controls satellite frequency spectrum allocations and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which regulates access to airspace and international agreements regarding safety and responsibility in civil aviation (and by extension, non-warfare related military aviation) and in theory could be extended into orbital space with the agreement of all members. The exception to this is that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) could pass resolutions and impose sanctions against nations whose actions or actions of citizens or companies incorporated within pose a risk to the security of nations through their actions in space; however, this would require the voting members of the USNC to concur, and given that the odds of any particular restriction being supported by the United States, Russian Federation, and Peoples Republic of China (the three spacefaring permanent members of the Security Council) is remote, this isn’t a practical avenue for developing any kind of regulatory structure for space operations.

Beyond the United Nations, what passes for “space law” is mostly individual agreements and compacts between nations and regulation and legislation within nations. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses commercial launches and oversees control over airspace as it applies to space launch, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controls frequency allocations and other communications-related use of space as pertains to interactions between US organizations. The US (and all other countries) are responsible for launches into space and objects in orbit that are performed and owned by US-registered corporations (and theoretically US citizens, should an individual citizen own a satellite or conduct a launch) even if they are launched or controlled from offshore sites or facilities.

If you want to know what little there is to know about “space law” I recommend reading Matthew Kleiman’s The Little Book of Space Law. The book is a little out of date as it was published in 2013 but little has actually changed in space law other than minor details of FAA commercial licensing. The book has a nice summary of applicable laws and regulations pertaining to launch operations, on-orbit operations (including orbital allocations, debris, cyberwarfare, and intellectual property law), regulations regarding payload return and accidental reentry, and use and ‘ownership’ of celestial objects (essentially no nation can own or assign property rights to any part of a celestial body, but one interpretation is that resources extracted under “use” can be owned by the relevant party, with the caveat that “use” and “ownership” are not well-defined terms).

Nobody can own an orbit, and orbital space is therefore a common resource; unfortunately, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and other such treaties don’t really provide any regulatory structure for assigning orbits or dealing with the problem of retiring out-of-service or failed satellites and spacecraft, leaving this up to the spacefaring nations to regulate this internally. There is what is often termed a “gentleman’s agreement” that out-of-service spacecraft be removed from active orbits into a retirement orbit or de-orbited within 25 years but there is no real enforceability of this rule and there are numerous satellites that have and will continue to violate this. It is technically plausible to build an orbital infrastructure that could intercept intact and de-orbit satellites; however, the problem with this is that any system with this capability is also inherently anti-satellite weapon.

A few years ago, after exploring the idea of creating a company with the ability to provide on-orbit refurbishment, refueling, and de-orbit and realizing the above restriction, I (briefly) considered going to law school with the intent of being able to campaign for and propose actual law regarding space operations. However, it quickly became apparent that there really isn’t any established law nor a real means of developing or executing any laws regarding space operations with any degree of authority. Moreover, the United States has little interest in commercial regulation of spaceflight beyond the FAA launch approval system, which is mostly concerned with liability and Expectation of Casualty estimation. Anyway, check out Kleiman for the state of law regarding space.

I think these are larger philosophical questions to which I do not pretend to have any particular insight beyond what science fiction authors have imagined; however, I think it is going to be far longer than many space enthusiasts assume before we will have permanent habitations on Mars or in space beyond Earth orbit. The amount of infrastructure and the physiological problems with indefinite human habitation of space is just well beyond what most enthusiasts understand or accept. I suspect most of our ‘legal’ challenges in space are going to involve commercial and national competition for strategic orbital azimuths and perhaps the extraction and utilization of space resources (e.g. Near Earth Asteroids) while trying to build up a self-sustaining infrastructure as a precursor to human habitation in space. So, fundamentally, trying to guess what people will do or what ‘space law’ will look like is somewhat premature, but it is good to be thinking about it ahead of time rather than just commercializing space and then letting things fall out as they will.


Very interesting. You know a lot. I will read the book you reccomended. The space law reentered my mind when I read that Elon Musk argues for a [direct democracy in which the laws can easily be repealed] (Elon Musk thinks the best government for Mars is a direct democracy - The Verge).

Please refer to article ^^ for more info.

California law will be the moon law. Ok. Who decided that? When? Space X law will be US law. Ok, but once you step on the Mars ground what law governs then? It sounds to me like they could use your input.

Have you heard about the asteroid Bennu? That’s impressive. In 2015 Obama signed the :
U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R.2262),

“NASA announced in Dec. 2019 that OSIRIS-REx would target a location named Nightingale, which is where Tuesday’s material collection occurred.”

As an aside note being a Star Trek fan I think The Federation is a good starting point. Again thanks for your input!