Future Of International Space Law: Implications And Impediments – OpEd


The idea of humans inhabiting the moon and calling it home may seem like something out of a sci-fi novel; however it is much closer to reality. If news reports are to be believed, people are actually selling property on the moon. What’s more? The United States of America seeks to secure property rights on the moon.[1] When Neil Armstrong first stepped on the surface of the moon and said “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, I doubt even he imagined that less than half a century later earthlings would actually start buying land by the acre on the moon. Whimsical as it may seem, several people across the world have indeed entered into ‘Lunar Deeds’ and purchased land on the moon from sellers, notwithstanding the feeble legal standing of such contracts.[2]

Under International Law, outer space including the moon and other celestial objects all form part of the common heritage of mankind and are protected by the Outer Space Treaty (officially known as Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) in a way similar to the protection granted to the seabed and sea resources by the UNCLOS. Article II of the Outer Space Treaty states that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”[3] .Other parts of the Treaty also advocate protection of celestial objects and outer space from weapons of destruction and prohibits nations from using them to harbor or develop and test weapons.

The moon is a goldmine of natural resources, large deposits of which are freely found on the surface itself making excavation easier. Rare earth metals and other metals such as Platinum provide a huge incentive for private companies to send spaceships to the moon to bring back these resources. Currently, more than 90 % of the world’s rare earth metals are mined from China, which makes it all the more important for other developed nations such as U.S.A. to source these scarce natural resources from outer space to gain economic and political leverage. Scientists and space miners have also reason to believe that the moon is a viable source of water which they hope to tap and use for their missions. In additions, luxury goods such as moon rocks, which have an estimated value of being at least 200 times costlier than gold in the market can easily be brought back from the moon as a multi-billion dollar market would fund missions to outer space.[4]

Considering the near future possibilities of commercializing the moon and perhaps other celestial bodies, the question of regulation arises. Who will monitor these operations and how will these commercial transactions be treated under laws applicable to various jurisdictions on Earth? How will the exploitation of outer space resources impact Earth? Despite the existence of the Outer Space Treaty, there are still several grey areas and lacunae in the realm of international space law and the regulatory framework for outer space commercial ventures. Another problem which needs to be resolved is the harmonization of conflicting Federal laws of various countries with the international law. For instance the U.S. Space Act states that “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.” Such laws clash with the principles governing international space law which essentially seeks to discourage privatization of outer space resources.

Another significant instrument is the Moon Treaty 1979[5], which essentially seeks to transfer the jurisdiction of all activities concerning celestial bodies to the international community. This Treaty was created subsequent to the Outer Space Treaty and it provides more specific guidelines. Importantly, it bans ownership of extra-terrestrial property by any entity unless it is international and governmental. It also bans activities which do not benefit other states in accordance with the doctrine of common heritage of mankind. It also bans the alteration of the environment of celestial objects and seeks to preserve them in their natural state. However, despite some of the detailed provisions of this Treaty, it is considered a failed Treaty because none of the countries which engage in self-launched manned space exploration have ratified this Treaty and it has not generated more than a lukewarm response from the international community at large. As of 2014, only 16 countries have ratified it, rendering it practically insignificant in terms of actual space operations.[6]

It is imperative for the international community to give more importance to this rather under-appreciated sphere of law and recognize the future implications of space missions. The Moon Treaty in particular deserves to be ratified by the countries engaged in space missions and be given adequate weightage. Other areas of law such as commercial transactions, tax laws etc. need to be incorporated within the regulatory framework to deal with the complicated issues arising from future space exploration.

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