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Legal experts at The University of Law have boldly gone where no-one has gone before to explain the governing laws of space travel.

In space, no-one can hear you scream...and nor can you claim sovereignty

With NASA’s Curiosity discovering clear signs of ancient water on Mars and a new exoplanet popping up a mere 72 lightyears away, legal experts at The University of Law have boldly gone where no-one has gone before to explain the governing laws of space travel.

Despite what sci-fi blockbusters may have you believe, the likelihood of an all-out war in outer space isn’t highly likely any time soon. The University of Law explains: “Any travel into space or exploration of celestial bodies is governed by The Outer Space Treaty, which came into force in 1967[1] and has since been ratified more than 100 times.”

“The Treaty says that space is free to explore for any state, nobody can lay claim over what they find, and importantly the moon and other celestial bodies must only be used for peaceful purposes. This means no country on Earth is allowed to place weapons of mass destruction on the Moon or in orbit, and the Treaty also establishes liability for any damage caused by space objects.”

The Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature by three Governments in 1967: The Russian Federation, The United States of America and The United Kingdom. By the end of that year the Treaty had come into force, which provides a basic framework for outer-space travel by any Earth nation.

The Treaty includes the following principles:

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind
  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all State
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies

Interestingly, there have been no cases where a nation has violated the Outer Space Treaty since it came into force more than 50 years ago. However, many countries have established their own laws in relation to outer-space travel. The USA, for example, created the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which allows companies to own and sell resources they extract from celestial bodies, such as asteroids. This law is a controversial one, which many have deemed to be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty.

So, what would happen if you were to break an outer-space law?

The University of Law explains: “The consequences of violating the Treaty would depend on the severity of the violation. For example, if a nation were to launch nuclear weapons into orbit, then as one would imagine this would have severe consequences and could even lead to an outer-space nuclear arms race. Lesser violations would most likely be brought in front of the UN for debate with all nations Party to the Treaty and could lead to amendments being made.

“As the commercialisation of outer space continues to grow, so does the need for new laws and regulations to keep up with the changing landscape. With various entrepreneurial billionaires making plans for space tourism and asteroid mining, we’ve seen several proposals in recent years for new treaties and agreements to govern such activities.

“However, the question of what would happen if we found extraterrestrial life remains. So far, there is no law that dictates how the human race could or should react to alien lifeforms. The deciding factor would be: do they come in peace[i]?”

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