A new round of internationally binding legal norms is urgently needed to hold governments and commercial organisations to account for outer space exploration and utilization, an expert in space law has warned.
As the dependency of humans on outer space will only further increase in the future, accessibility to outer space is of utmost concern and needs to be both technically and legally guaranteed.
In her new book, The Space Law Stalemate, Dr Anja Nakarada Pečujlić presents a clear overview of the situation and proposes solutions to ensure fair and sustainable access to space.
Playing legal catch-up
“Risk-taking and hyper-entrepreneurial private space industry are likely to be the leaders in the next phase of the space race,” Dr Nakarada Pečujlić explains. “The evolution of space law, however, has not followed the pace of transformative changes and advancements, nor the emergence of new risks.”
The historic international treaties on space, including the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the four subsequent space treaties, set the framework for transnational cooperation in space by preventing individual states from seeking national appropriation and claiming the sovereignty of celestial bodies.
However, the legal framework has failed to progress, Dr Nakarada Pečujlić explains: “International space law has, more or less, continued to reside within the boundaries created by a 40-year stalemate.
“But these treaties, which dealt with the competition between superpowers during the Cold War, are no longer fit for purpose in an era of plentiful satellites and profit-making ventures.”
Dr Nakarada Pečujlić argues that we are seeing the result of the 40-year stalemate now: “Orbits are filling up with private satellites and becoming rapidly unusable, and meanwhile hindering our ability to look into space with ground-based satellites to further our knowledge of the universe.”
Shortcomings in current law
The Space Law Stalemate provides an overview of the historical political context within which space treaties were developed and examines three examples that demonstrate their shortcomings today: space debris, space mining, and human planetary exploration.
Dr Nakarada Pečujlić makes a series of recommendations to improve and bolster the current legal frameworks. She says: “The current law should be modified to ensure that future space activities are possible beyond anarchy, greed, and ecological irresponsibility, and to ensure that the principle of the peaceful uses of outer space remains the governing norm.”
Her recommendations include empowering the UN and the body (UN COPUOS) in charge of regulating space issues, redefining its relevance and authority, and/or building new, inclusive institutions.
She concludes: “The legal and institutional apparatus exists and can be readily adapted and utilised, it is now just about momentum and making sure that global leaders understand the urgency of this problem and make a concerted effort to dedicate the resource.”