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Outer Space and it's legal status

The first nation to send a man into space was U.S.S.R and that triggered the very concept of the space law and the space race began. After that, the number of advancements in space exploration from a number of satellites, to international Space Station from establishing foot on the moon, to forestalling the approaching treats from outer space to earth.

There was no universal law and need of space law felt and in the absence of law, it is governed by various treaties and conventions only. The First treaty regarding space law was Outer Space Treaty, which came into force in the year 1967. After that, many treaties came into the picture and the main purpose was the peaceful utilization of space and space resources for the welfare of mankind.

Outer Space
There is no clear cut definition some there are many proposed definitions of outer space, like:
Any region of space beyond limits determined with reference to the boundaries of a celestial body or system, especially:
  1. The region of space immediately beyond Earth's atmosphere.
  2. Interplanetary or interstellar space. [1]
The Space Law refers to the human activities in outer space with relation to National and International Law. During the time, when it was discussed at the United Nations, many treaties, resolutions, international space organizations, agreements on space activities etc., were originated.

Previously, most of the space-related operations were done by govt. instrumentalities but now, in this commercial new era, many private companies such as SpaceX are preparing for their own missions and some have started making collaborations with government agencies.

Space Law never emerged as private law and many other topics become part of space law such as Radio Frequencies, International Telecommunications Law, Telecommunication Union, Military Activities, Agreements on major arms control etc. Due to commercialization and privatization in space-related activities, many other new issues born in this field such as Issue of Space tourism, Satellite remote sensing, Satellite communications, Space resource utilization, Dispute settlement issues, Satellite navigation, Satellite launching, Military use of outer space, Space station operations, Space project financing, Space debris and its mitigation etc.

Legal Status
Treaties and Conventions are the source of Space Law. Due to lack of laws & customs, Treaties are considered as the major sources. An office of Outer Space (OOSA) is in Vienna, Austria.

There are five basic treaties:
  1. Outer Space Treaty:

    It is regarded as the Master Treaty of all in the space law and sometimes called The Grandfather Treaty. It came into effect in 1967. This treaty came into the picture when humans were close to set foot on the moon. It reflected the concern of two superpowers of that time, U.S & Soviet Union. The Outer Space Treaty was signed for the benefit of entire mankind and majorly focused upon the concept of weapons of mass destruction in space. This treaty also tries to resolve the issue of claim of sovereignty in space and it also dealt with registration of Space Objects.
  2. Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, Return of Astronauts and Return of Objects Launched into space (the Astronaut Rescue and Return Agreement)[2]

    State Parties are to render humanitarian assistance to astronauts in distress or who have made an emergency or unintended landing on their territory, and to return the astronauts to the launching authority.

    State Parties are to return objects launched into outer space or their component parts to the launching authority if they land on their territory.
  3. Convention on International liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the Liability Convention)

    This convention has 28 Articles and took around a decade to develop. Before this treaty Legal Principles Governing the Activities of Space in Exploration and Usage of Outer Space [3] mentioned that the states will be responsible for activities in outer space.
  4. Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the Registration Convention)[4]

    The 1976 Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, expands on the 1976 principle that nations retain jurisdiction over and responsibility for their facilities and objects in space. It mandates that a nation register its launch with a U.N. Registry, and thereby legitimate that nation's jurisdiction over the vessel or facility.
  5. Agreement governing the activities of States on Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Agreement)[5]

    Exploration and use of the Moon shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries and due regard shall be paid to the interests of present and future generations.

The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind; neither the surface nor the subsurface nor any part thereof shall become the property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.

States Parties shall undertake to establish an international regime to govern the exploitation of the Moon's natural resources as such exploitation is about to become feasible. The regime's purposes include orderly and safe development of the Moon's natural resources, the rational management of those resources, the expansion of opportunities to use those resources, and an equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources.

States Parties bear international responsibility for national activities on the Moon, whether by governmental or non-governmental entities. Activities of non-governmental entities must take place only under the authority and continuing supervision of the appropriate State Party.

All space vehicles, equipment, facilities, etc. shall be open to other States Parties so all States Parties may assure themselves that activities of others are in conformance with this agreement. Procedures are established for resolving differences.

Space Debris:

Space Debris is one of the biggest problems which is going to affect both extra-terrestrial and terrestrial environment. The major treaties which are dealing with space law along with the provisions of environment safety is Outer Space treaty, 1967 and Moon Treaty, 1979. Further, there are more treaties which more or less deals with such issue: The Environment Modification Convention 1977, Space Liability Convention 1972, The Rescue Agreement 1968 and The Space Registration Convention 1975.

Many times, many missions have to be aborted due to Space Debris. A 0.5 mm paint chip travelling at 35,000 km/hr (10 km/sec) could puncture a standard space suit.[6]

No treaty deals with the universal definition of Space Debris. The word Debris is derived from the French word Debriser which means to break down.

According to the Report of Second U.N. Conference on Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space 1982, space debris consists of dead satellites, spent rocket motors, nuts and bolts etc.

Space debris is: [7]

  • A space object as defined by Article I(d) of the Liability Convention and Article I(b) of the Registration Convention;
  • That no longer performs its original function or has no tangible function;
  • That either re-enters the atmosphere, remains in Earth orbit, in outer space or on the Moon or another celestial body,
  • Is either created intentionally or through the actions or inactions of a launching state;
  • May have economic value to a launching state;
  • May have historical value to a launching state;
  • And/or may have continued national security value to a launching state.
Current Scenario, is that there are millions of fragments orbiting around the earth. Currently, the U.S Space Surveillance Network is tracking over 13,000 human-made objects larger than 10 cm in diameter orbiting the Earth.[8] In addition, there are over 100,000 objects measuring between one and ten cm in diameter and millions smaller than one cm.[9] It is estimated that 40 % of the tracked debris is the result of breakups of rockets and space craft bodies.[10]

Some examples are: In year 2013, the first and only satellite of Ecuador named Pegasus, was damaged by space debris. On 10th Feb. 2009, the first collision of two intact spacecraft occurred in the outer space. Iridium 33, US communication satellite and Cosmos, a Russian satellite collided as two objects passed over northern Siberia, it was the first ever accidental in-orbital collision between two satellites. Another recent incident that dramatically, increased in amount of catalogued fragmentation debris in outer space, and public interest, was the intentional destruction by China of its own orbiting Fengyun-1C weather satellite by an anti-satellite (ASAT) device in 2007. According to Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris, this ASAT test, is by far the worst satellite fragmentation in the history of the space age, in the past 50 years. [11]

There are two kinds of Debris

Natural Debris, which consists of Natural bodies revolving around the sun, like, meteors and asteroids.
Artificial Debris, which consist of man-made objects (usually non-functional) which revolves around the Earth. Most commonly referred as Orbital Debris.

Liability for Damage Caused by Space Debris

Article VI of Outer Space Treaty describes, the International Responsibility for the activities conducted by the countries (govt. agencies or private) in outer space and for ensuring that such activities are obedient with Outer Space Treaty.

Further Article VII elaborates: Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies

Article VIII states: A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object [] or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, [.] and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth

Article VII of Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects states: The provisions of this Convention shall not apply to damage caused by a space object of a launching State to:
  1. Nationals of that launching State;
  2. Foreign nationals during such time as they are participating in the operation of that space object from the time of its launching or at any stage thereafter until its descent or during such time as they are in the immediate vicinity of a planned launching or recovery area as the result of an invitation by that launching State.

Space Debris Mitigation and Removal:

There are basically two main ways to remove the space debris:

Mitigation which means, reducing the further creation of space debris while Removal may be by a human-made scheme. For this, it is important to understand the Tracking of Space Debris and Sources of Space Debris.

Active Removal
Tracking of Space Debris is very important to have a rough overview of the situation of the problem. Tracking includes extreme calculations by sophisticated machines. It can further help us in avoiding major collisions in future. In the present time, there are some sensors put up for tracking space objects. The United States Space Surveillance Network, track, identify and catalogue all manmade objects orbiting the earth. It has a Radar Sensor system, Optical Sensor system, Air Force Space Surveillance system and works with Joint Space Operation Center (JSpOC).

  3. GA Resolution 1962 (XVIII),
  6. Howard A. Baker, Space Debris: Legal and Policy Implications 3, (1989), p. 10
  8. Stefan Lovgren, Space Junk Cleanup Needed, NASA Experts Warn, National Geographic News, January 19, 2006,
  9. Brad Thomas, STS 121, Space Center Roundup, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, (April 2006),, p.8
  10. Stefan Lovgren, Space Junk Cleanup Needed, NASA Experts Warn, National Geographic News, January 19, 2006,
  11. Ram Jakhu, Legal Issues of Satellite Telecommunications, The Geostationary Orbit, and Space Debris, Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy, vol. 5(2), (2007), p. 192

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