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A New Era of Space Exploration With the Same Old Space Laws

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We are living in the era of rapid space exploration, usage of space technologies, and outdated space laws regulating all of this. Currently, more than 4,500 satellites are orbiting Earth, and the number is only going to increase. Except for governmental and international agencies’ programmes, we are dealing with a never-seen-before phenomenon. And yes, we’re talking about private space companies, of course, and old space treaties.

The high purpose of space exploration vs reality

Long ago, when the first rockets and satellites were built and launched into space, nobody expected that only in sixty years, the richest of this world would try to make money in space, too.

Amid the Cold War, politicians from around the globe urgently concluded the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. According to the Treaty, outer space was declared “the province of mankind”. This means that its exploration and use should benefit all countries without discrimination. The space treaty states that the use of space must be for peaceful purposes only, free from unwanted intervention and environmental tampering. Last but not least, it holds governments accountable for any harm their space operations bring.

The weaknesses of the Outer Space Treaty

It sounds good, but today these space regulations are more like basic recommendations recognising space as something that belongs to everyone on the planet and should benefit humanity. It does not even mention anything about space debris or dangerous anti-satellite military tests. At the same time, the Treaty does not offer a comprehensive guide.

First, when talking about the use of space for peaceful purposes, it does not explicitly state which purposes are peaceful and which are not. The second minor issue is that the Treaty mentions Moon and celestial objects but omits the rest of space.

The agreement also does not manage to respond to the modern "space weaponisation" trend. While Russia tested anti-satellite weapons and has threatened to start using weapons in space, the Treaty has nothing to offer in terms of punishment, as Russia's actions do not clearly constitute a violation. The vague limitations included in the Treaty leave sufficient space for interpretation and manipulations.

A new challenge for space law formation

Today, we are in the new space phase, where private and commercial space companies dominate the market. It seems that Elon Musk’s rockets are flying to space more often than any other governmentally made spacecraft. Things are getting even more interesting when we think about the ambitious plans of businessmen involved in the new space race. Companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries want to mine asteroids, or even other planets, to sell the extracted resources. The commercial space stations, Moon hotels, space travelling, colonisation of Mars – I could continue the list, but you got the idea. What nobody talks about is the boring legal side of space exploration.

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The industry was previously dominated solely by government programmes, and now it is mostly driven by the interests of private companies. And it may turn out soon that there are no clear space laws to make corporations or businessmen responsible for the damage they are causing to the environment.

An update necessary

The main challenge today is to update the space treaty and make it fair and forward-looking. While the politicians are wasting time and can’t agree even about the climate change threat, the big space players are trying to build the strategy of space exploration without even knowing tomorrow’s rules.

The Outer Space Law provides the legal basis for space exploration and a framework to further develop valid space laws. But we urgently need to review OST and generate more specific and up-to-date space regulations if we want to implement all of the big plans we have. Otherwise, the spacecraft launches and big missions will be waiting on-site until the people of power will sign a new space treaty.

© 2022 Pooja Shah

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