International space laws, and why it’s not the Wild West
Many believe the Artemis 1 moon launch will mark the dawn of a new era in human space exploration. As humanity reaches outward to explore the moon and perhaps Mars, will our adventures in outer space be peaceful and orderly … or will outer space become a new Wild West? In this article, Kuan-Wei Chen – Executive Director of the Center for Research in Air and Space Law at McGill University – and colleagues, argue that international space laws will protect the valuable assets of many countries. They point to The McGill Manual, drafted by institutions around the world, which outlines 52 rules that clarify space laws.
International space laws exist
The release of the first images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will inspire generations with the infinite possibilities that outer space holds. Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that only peaceful, safe, sustainable, lawful and legitimate uses of space are undertaken for the benefit of humanity and future generations.
In pursuit of this, over the past six years McGill University and a host of collaborating institutions around the world have been involved in the drafting of the McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space.
In August, the collaboration published the first volume of the McGill Manual. It contains the 52 Rules, adopted by consensus by the group of experts. The rules clarify the international law applicable to all space activities conducted during peacetime and in times of tension that pose challenges to peace.
International space laws protect all countries
Since the beginning of the Space Age 65 years ago, we have witnessed tremendous strides in space exploration that have benefited life on Earth. Research into space technologies inform many of our modern conveniences. We bring back and study mineral samples from asteroids.
For decades, we have used satellite technologies for positioning, navigation and timing. The United States’ global positioning system — of which there are Chinese, European, Russian, Japanese and Indian variants — is the backbone for essential applications. These include emergency search and rescue, precision farming for food production, air traffic navigation, the security of the financial and banking system, and the synchronization of time across cyber networks.
Our increasing reliance on space infrastructure makes modern economies increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of accidents. We’re also vulnerable to unlawful and irresponsible acts affecting the exploration and use of space.
Collisions and attacks in space
In 2009, there was a communications blackout over North America after an accidental collision between a defunct Soviet satellite and Iridium communications satellite. This was a stark reminder of how vulnerable Earth operations are to events in space.
Space debris poses a grave danger to other functioning space objects, not to mention to people and property on the ground should pieces fall to Earth. This month, China launched several ballistic missiles that reached 124 miles (200 kilometers) above sea level. These potentially threaten satellites that operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO). LEO is prime space real estate used for crucial communications and remote sensing worldwide.
Space systems are not just vulnerable to missiles. They may be interfered with or destroyed through other means such as lasers, spoofing, jamming and cyberattacks. The human costs and consequences of a conflict in space could be devastating beyond contemplation.
Affirming international space laws
As countries and commercial space operators study how to explore and use the moon and other celestial bodies for valuable resources, we need to understand that outer space is not a lawless “Wild West.” In fact, there is a clear body of fundamental legal principles that have applied to all space activities for many decades.
Since the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit (Sputnik I), there has been clear consensus that outer space, planets and asteroids must be explored and used in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Charter.
These foundational principles are elaborated in a series of United Nations treaties on space law subscribed to by virtually all space-faring countries. With the increased number of commercial and private space operators, countries are adopting national space laws to regulate and oversee how all national space activities are conducted in accordance with international law.
Independent and impartial
The U.S. government and others have affirmed that:
conflict or confrontation in space is not inevitable.
In the current geopolitical environment, it is necessary to affirm and clarify the laws. These will prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings, and in turn foster transparency, confidence-building and some cooperation in space.
A significant body of international rules and legal principles applies to all space activities, including military space activities. These are, however, sometimes subject to differing interpretations that create confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty.
The McGill Manual is an independent and impartial effort. It clarifies and reaffirms that existing laws are relevant and applicable to accommodate new activities and applications. These laws impose constraints on irresponsible and dangerous actions and meet new challenges in outer space.
The manual’s development involved over 80 legal and technical experts. They confirmed, for instance, that there is an absolute prohibition on the testing and use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in space. It also said that harmful interference with the space assets of other states is illegal. The experts highlighted that the right of self-defense related to military space activities must take into consideration the unique legal and physical aspects of outer space.
Peace in space
Governments and commercial operators in space must understand that space is a shared global commons. The activities of one country or company will have implications for everyone else. The publication of the McGill Manual marks a major milestone in supporting ongoing international efforts.
These internationally agreed laws must inform peaceful exploration and cooperation in space. The fate of future generations depends on this.
Kuan-Wei Chen, Executive Director, Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, McGill University; Bayar Goswami, Arsenault Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University; Ram S. Jakhu, Full Professor, Former Director, Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University, and Steven Freeland, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University
Bottom line: International space laws are in place to ensure cooperation and protect the valuable assets of many countries, including satellites used in farming, search and rescue, finance systems and more.