Law of Space

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Law of Space

The law of space is the field of the law that relates to outer space or outer space-related activities conducted by governments, international organizations, and private individuals. International space law governs the activities of states and international organizations, whereas domestic, or national, space law governs the activities of individual countries and their citizens. Both areas of space law govern the activities of private persons and businesses.

International Space Law

Soon after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, the United Nations became active in the creation, development, and implementation of a system for studying the legal problems that may result from the exploration and use of outer space. Since the establishment of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1958, five major multilateral treaties and conventions have been adopted or ratified by many countries to establish the framework to address concerns about outer space matters:

  1. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (1967), commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty, established basic principles regarding outer space and its exploration and use, including the conduct of activities pursuant to international law;
  2. The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (1968), commonly known as the Rescue Agreement, safeguarded the prompt return of astronauts to the host country;
  3. The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (1972), commonly known as the Liability Convention, established an international legal regime to assess liability and compensation for damage, injury, or death resulting from space activities and objects;
  4. The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (1976), commonly known as the Registration Convention, provides for a centralized registry of space objects maintained by the Secretary General of the United Nations; and
  5. The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (1979), commonly known as the Moon Agreement, declares the Moon to be the "common heritage of all mankind." It has not been ratified by states that have or are likely to develop the ability to orbit around or land on the Moon.

These treaties provide the framework for international space law. Their principles and provisions relate to the exploration and use of outer space and are binding upon the countries that have ratified them. Together, these principles and provisions guide countries that have not ratified the international treaties. Space law includes international arms control treaties that prohibit or restrict the deployment or use of certain rocket and missile weapon systems. Space law also includes agreements, treaties, conventions, rules and regulations of nations and international organizations, executive and administrative orders, and judicial decisions.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations, is the world's regulatory body for the coordination and regulation of the radio frequency spectrum and the space-based and land-based facilities that provide global telecommunications services. Nearly every country in the world is a member of the ITU. The launching of commercial satellites, particularly those that provide telecommunications services, is the most common space activity. The ITU's management of the orbital positions of these satellites and prevention of harmful interference caused by radio frequency transmissions are accomplished by the adherence of the member countries to the provisions of the International Telecommunication Convention (1973).

In the United States the Federal Communications Commission is the regulatory authority for private, commercial, and state and local government use of the radio frequency spectrum. The commission controls the licensing of space satellites and ground Earth stations and regulates their use of radio frequencies to ensure that telecommunications services are free from interference by other transmissions.

Domestic Space Law

Launches of commercial satellites for telecommunications, remote sensing , and global positioning systems are governed by the regulatory regimes of the countries that conduct those launches. As the launching state, a country that has launched a rocket or missile is liable under the international treaties for any damage caused by the launch activity to third parties. Each launching state's domestic regulations also address the responsibilities and liabilities of the launching entity.

The conduct of space launches from U.S. territory or by U.S. citizens or businesses from anywhere outside the national territory is governed by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984. This act supplies the legal framework for the relationship between the government and the commercial space launch industry. The act directs the secretary of transportation to regulate space transportation and streamline the licensing process for commercial space activities pursuant to international treaty obligations and national policy. This statute is implemented by the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation of the Federal Aviation Administration. Commercial launch providers are required by the act to obtain insurance for death, injury, or property damage suffered by third parties. If an accident occurred during the launch activity, the U.S. government would pay any international claims in excess of the insurance level.

Other laws of the United States apply to the operation of private remote sensing satellites (the Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984); the encouragement of commercial activity on the space station and government purchases of commercially produced scientific data (the Commercial Space Act of 1998); the protection of intellectual property and the patenting of inventions made, used, sold, or practiced in space (Public Law 101-580 on Inventions in Outer Space, 1990); and attempts to minimize the amount of orbital debris (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act, 1994 and 1995).

As the space industry has expanded from a niche market benefiting a limited high-tech scientific and military base to a global concern affecting geographically dispersed industries and consumers, the scope of space law has grown. From the initial steps of establishing the principles for the exploration and use of outer space by nations and governments, space law in the twenty-first century encompasses rational and reasonable approaches to representing the demands of persons in virtually every part of the world for enhanced communications, education, entertainment, environmental, and transportation services. As space commerce grows, space law will continue to address the unique problems posed by commercial activities in space.

see also Careers in Space Law (volume 1); Law (volume 4); Legislative Environment (volume 1); Regulation (volume 1); Spaceports (volume 1).

David L. Lihani


Bender, R. Launching and Operating Satellites: Legal Issues. Cambridge, MA: Kluwer Law International, 1998.

Diederiks-Verschoor, I. H. Philepina. An Introduction to Space Law, 2nd ed. The Hague, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1999.

Goldman, Nathan. American Space Law: International and Domestic, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Univelt for American Astronautical Society, 1996.

Handberg, Roger. The Future of the Space Industry: Private Enterprise and Public Policy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997.

Reynolds, Glenn H., and Robert P. Merges. Outer Space: Problems of Law and Policy, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.