As commercial interests and international partnerships dovetail in space exploration and use, space law will have to be rewritten to cut a way through an increasingly dense legal thicket
Send up a satellite, haul an asteroid onto it and ship it to the earth . . . . This may sound like science fiction, but it's on the agenda of an American industrialist bent on being the world's first proud owner of a celestial body. What's to stop him, apart from the cost? How do things stand legally, for example? According to international space law, no one can lay claim to a celestial body. But if he manages to get his asteroid down to earth, it will have ceased to be a heavenly body and space law won't apply.
As technological development opens up commercial possibilities in space, a Pandora's box of legal questions is ready to burst open. There is, for example, no legal definition of where airspace ends and outer space begins. So while an aircraft registered in one country needs permission to fly through another country's airspace, the situation would be less clear for a microwave-powered reconnaissance device which is being developed to fly about 30 kilometres overhead and is neither a satellite nor an aircraft.
Issues like this will take centre stage at the upcoming Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE), which will be held in Vienna, Austria, in July. Representatives from 185 states as well as industrial leaders in the field will be attending the conference, the most important international meeting on space affairs held this decade. The decisions arising from UNISPACE will shape the way we envision and use outer space. Three major issues in particular will dominate the legal discussions: space, debris, the commercialization of space, and intellectual property.
"Environmental protection" has a special meaning in space. A bolt or a nail travelling faster than a bullet at 75,000 kilometres an hour can seriously damage an expensive telecommunications satellite. An estimated two million kilos of junk are already in orbit, with about 110,000 objects between one and 10 centimetres and another 8,500 fragments even bigger. And these numbers are expected to grow exponentially. In 10 years' time 1,000 satellites will be orbiting the earth, up from 600 circulating today.
An orbiting junkyard
Yet the space debris problem may prove relatively easy to resolve because it directly concerns major powers with the biggest investments in space hardware like the U.S., Russia and France. "We've already had at least one major accident, when a piece of debris hit the French satellite, Cerise," says Dr. Kai-Uwe Schrogl, a lawyer with the German Aerospace Centre. The accident didn't cause too much of a legal ruckus, though, because the "guilty" fragment was originally from a French launcher. "But just imagine if that debris had come from a Russian or Chinese launcher."
While there is some mention of environmental protection in two of the three UN conventions governing space activities (see box page 13), there are no binding rules designed to limit debris. "The United States doesn't want anything resembling international regulations," says Schrogl, but many other countries are pushing for a UN agreement on the issue. Ironically, the U.S. is the only country with national regulations concerning space junk and, says Shrogl, the U.S. government is now in the process of strengthening these laws which are expensive to implement. It costs much more to build a satellite that doesn't shed its spent rocket boosters than one that does. "When cheaper, more polluting launchers developed by other countries begin to reduce America's competitive edge, we will find a U.S. administration favourable to international rules," Schrogl says. "The United States would prefer to see regulations set in a non-governmental forum where they can do what they like. But they'll eventually be forced to go to the United Nations. …