Academic journal article University of Western Sydney Law Review

A Delicate Balance: Regulating Micro Satellite Technology in a Big Satellite World

Academic journal article University of Western Sydney Law Review

A Delicate Balance: Regulating Micro Satellite Technology in a Big Satellite World

Article excerpt


The development of space-related technology since the dawn of the space age in 1957 has given rise to many new and exciting possibilities. It has also meant that space activities continue to evolve, facilitating the participation of a variety of space 'actors' other than States. One of the potentially most significant developments in this regard has been the increasing use of small satellites. These are in general cheaper and less complex to develop, build and launch than conventional satellites, and have thus enabled groups such as university students and non-profit organisations to become involved in space. More significantly, the possibilities now exist for 'traditional' users of outer space to also utilise this technology for existing as well as new commercial and other purposes. This may represent a pivotal moment towards the development of a new space paradigm. Yet, despite the tremendous potential offered by small satellites, it is important to recognise that, like other space objects, they are subject to the regulatory requirements specified in the international space treaties, as well as other instruments and national legislation. This article discusses a number of the more significant regulatory requirements and analyses how they might apply to space activities involving small satellites now and into the future.


October 1957 witnessed the launch of the first human-made space object to orbit the Earth, Sputnik 1. Since that time, there has been a breathtaking and seemingly endless development of space-related technology. Humankind is now engaged in a multitude of space activities far beyond the contemplation of those involved at that time. The utilisation of space technology now forms a crucial part of everyday society in all parts of the globe--irrespective of the (geopolitical, economic and cultural characteristics of any one country. Simply put, our reliance on space technology is such that the world would cease to function in many respects without constant and unimpeded access, and this imperative is likely to become even more pronounced for future generations. This has primarily been driven by the increasing 'commercialisation' of outer space.

Yet, as is well known, there remains a vast gulf between the space capabilities of the relatively small number of space 'powers' compared with the rest of the world. It has been estimated that approximately up to 60 States now have some form of direct space capability, (1) although the extent to which they are able to utilise space for their own development (and other) purposes varies quite significantly. Of course, this also means that perhaps up to 140 States thus far do not realistically have any independent capability to directly access space themselves. This is despite their reliance on space-related technology for many aspects of their functioning and development. These countries are instead totally dependent on others for their space access, which therefore impacts upon their space 'security' and impedes opportunities for creativity, innovation and progress among their citizens. The reality is that their access to satellite data and the ability to utilise vital space technology in a crisis would be largely dependent on, and subject to, the strength and enforceability of their existing contractual relationships and political ties.

It is in this context that the recent development and adaptation of so-called 'small' satellite technology potentially represents a paradigm shift in the way humankind accesses space. These satellites are usually cheaper and less complex to develop, build and launch than conventional satellites. They therefore open the possibilities for a significantly greater degree of space access to a much larger range of space 'actors'. Already, groups such as university students and non- profit organisations in both developed and developing countries have increasingly been able to become involved in space through these means. …

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