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Space law is an area of the law that encompasses national and international law governing activities in outer space. International lawyers have been unable to agree on a uniform definition of the term "outer space," although most lawyers agree that outer space generally begins at the lowest altitude above sea level at which objects can orbit the Earth, (approximately 100 km or 62.1 miles). The inception of the field of space law began with the launching in October of 1957 of the world's first satellite, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic's Sputnik. In 1958, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev each asked the United Nations to consider the legal issues associated with space activity. The U.N. subsequently created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space ("COPUOS"). COPUOS in turn created two subcommittees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. The COPUOS Legal Subcommittee has been the primary forum for discussion and negotiation of international agreements relating to outer space.
Five international treaties have been negotiated and drafted in the COPUOS: 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 (the "Outer Space Treaty"), the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the "Rescue Agreement"), the 1973 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the "Liability Convention"), the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched Into Outer Space (the "Registration Convention"), and the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies ("the Moon Treaty"). The Outer Space Treaty is the most widely-adopted treaty, with 98 parties. The Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention and the Registration Convention all elaborate on provisions of the Outer Space Treaty. U.N. delegates apparently intended that the Moon Treaty serve as a new comprehensive treaty which would supersede or supplement the Outer Space Treaty, most notably by elaborating upon the Outer Space Treaty's provisions regarding resource appropriation and prohibition of territorial sovereignty. The Moon Treaty has only 12 parties, and many consider it to be a failed treaty due to its limited acceptance.
The COPUOS operates on the basis of consensus, i.e. all committee and subcommittee delegates must agree on treaty language before it can be included in the final version of a treaty, and the committees cannot place new items on their agendas unless all member nations agree. One reason that the U.N. space treaties lack definitions and are unclear in other respects, is because it is easier to achieve consensus when language and terms are vague. In recent years, the COPUOS Legal Subcommittee has been unable to achieve consensus on discussion of a new comprehensive space agreement, and it is also unlikely that the Subcommittee will be able to agree to amend the Outer Space Treaty in the foreseeable future. Many space faring nations seem to believe that discussing a new space agreement or amendment of the Outer Space Treaty would be futile and time consuming, because entrenched differences regarding resource appropriation, property rights and other issues relating to commercial activity make consensus unlikely.
In addition to the international treaties that have been negotiated in the United Nations, the nations participating in the International Space Station have entered into the 1998 Agreement among the Government of Canada, Governments of the Member States of the European Space Agency, the Government of Japan, the Government of the Russian Federation, and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Cooperation on the Civil International Space Station (the "Space Station Agreement"). This Agreement provides, among other things, that NASA is the lead agency in coordinating the member states' contributions to and activities on the space station, and that each nation has jurisdiction over its own module(s). The Agreement also provides for protection of intellectual property and procedures for criminal prosecution. This Agreement may very well serve as a model for future agreements regarding international cooperation in facilities on the Moon and Mars.
Space law also encompasses national laws, and many countries have passed national space legislation in recent years. The Outer Space Treaty requires parties to authorize and supervise national space activities, including the activities of non-governmental entities such as commercial and non-profit organizations. The Outer Space Treaty also incorporates the U.N. Charter by reference, and requires parties to ensure that activities are conducted in accordance with other forms of international law such as customary international law (the custom and practice of states). The advent of commercial space activities beyond the scope of the satellite communications industry, and the development of many commercial spaceports, is leading many countries to consider how to regulate private space activities. The challenge is to regulate these activities in a manner that does not hinder or preclude investment, while still ensuring that commercial activities comply with international law. The developing nations are concerned that the space faring nations will monopolize space resources.
The future of space law
While this field of the law is still in its infancy, it is in an era of rapid change and development. Arguably the resources of space are infinite, and limited only by our ability to use them in a manner that is fair and equitable to all nations. If commercial space transportation becomes widely available, with substantially lower launch costs, then all countries will be able to directly reap the benefits of space resources. In that situation, it seems likely that consensus will be much easier to achieve with respect to commercial development and human settlement of outer space.
- The nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 banned the test of nuclear weapons in outer space.
- The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (full name: The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) governs the activities of states in space exploration.
- The rescue agreement of 1968 (The Agreement on the rescue of astronauts, the return of astronauts and the return of objects launched into space).
- The liability convention of 1972 (the Convention on international liability for damages caused by space objects) deals with damages caused by space objects.
- The registration convention of 1976 (the Convention on the registration of objects launched into outer space) covers the registration of objects launched in outer space.
- The Moon Treaty of 1984 (the Agreement governing the activities of states on the Moon and other celestial bodies) deals with the activities of states on the moon and other bodies.
The years of the different conventions and agreements indicate when they have entered into force.
COPUOS oversees the implementation of five treaties and agreements:
- "Outer Space Treaty" - The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies
- "Rescue Agreement" - The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space
- "Liability Convention" - The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects
- "Registration Convention" - The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space
- "Moon Treaty" - The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies