When it comes to our current civilization, we tend to prefer the rule of law. Some argue that law can never be defined as the word changes meaning depending upon context. The Greek approach to laws give glimpse into the complexity of the issue. They relied upon distinctions between divine law, human decree and custom. Laws that are formulated today tend to rely upon precedents in terms of how previous cases were handled. Therefore, the interpretation of laws is also something that continually changes. We should also ask whether we follow laws because it is a system of rules and guidelines enforced by social institutions or commands of a central authority enforced by threats of punishment.
While many types of laws exist, the newest branch to enter the race is space law. The issue perhaps started in 1942, when a rocket scientist named Theodore Von Karman asked a lawyer friend to share the rules governing behaviour in outer space. Today we have the Karman line, which is considered to be 100 kms above the surface of the Earth and lawyers agree that this is where outer space begins. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is the body that deals with the laws of space and it operates on the basis of consensus. Treaties that have been currently agreed to between signatory countries tend to be vague because of it being easier to gain consensus in such cases. In addition, concerns over hindering commercial endeavours into outer space have reduced the creation of legal systems and bureaucracy that typically springs up.
Space laws have sometimes drawn inspiration from the laws of the sea, another place where the issues of international law, resources, property rights, and cooperation frequently come up. Because of the high cost of lifting materials to orbit, recovering asteroids for use has been a common dream among space explorers. The question rises as to who owns these resources and what rights exist where there is no authority to enforce it. International law regarding finding treasure at sea is an interesting parallel. While the rules generally state “finders keepers”, any attempt to hide the discovery results in charges of ‘dishonest conduct’, eliminating any rights the finder may have to the discovery. Furthermore, governments have still pursued cases against individuals who found treasure in international waters, which had only the smallest of links to the country of origin.
One of the examples of space treaties in action was the crash of Cosmos 954 in 1978. The Soviet Union satellite spread large amounts of radioactive debris over Northern Canada and a claim was brought by Canada for $6 million in damages. The parties eventually settled with the USSR agreeing to pay $3 million. In contrast, when portions of the Skylab space station fell over Western Australia in 1979, the United States was only fined $400 for littering.
What does all this mean for us as individuals? Essentially, you are subject to the laws of the country you launched from while in space or whose vessel you are occupying. You cannot own any property on the moon or on Mars. If a satellite falls on your head, your country can sue the origin country but you can only pursue the matter by going to their courts. In case an asteroid made of gold falls in your backyard, no one has any rights to own it. It’s not illegal to kill aliens at this point. It is legal to launch your own payload into orbit with permission, but you are responsible for any damages it might cause.
Space lawyers (yes that is a real profession) today tend to spend most of their time on issues regarding satellites. With cases such as insurance being decided based solely on the opinions of astronauts and technicians, legal settlements can take years to conclude. When it comes to real world challenges in space such as the amount of clutter which makes launches dangerous, legal rights and treaties cannot do much to help. Only technical solutions will help solve these issues and laws can only serve as preventative measures. Since outer space treaties operate on consensus, this only works until someone decides to stop following the rules.
Another fascinating episode in space law happened in 2013 with astronaut Chris Hadfield’s cover version of David Bowie’s 1969 hit song ‘Space Oddity’. Recorded on the International Space Station (ISS), the song was broadcast over YouTube and amassed over 23 million views before being taken down over copyright issues such as which of the 15 countries who built the ISS had rights over it. After numerous discussions with Mr Bowie's representatives, NASA, Russia's space agency ROSCOSMOS and the Canadian Space Agency CSA, the song was finally brought back andhas since crossed over 35 million views. David Bowie himself commented that it was "possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created." One hopes that all cases of space law in the future will have as happy an ending as this.
What role does India play in this whole discussion? Contributing factors include debris from an ISRO satellite falling on a Japanese fishing village, rockets blowing up on the launch pad and damaging other payloads from multiple countries, and the massive 104 satellites launched into space making India liable for any accidents that happen. With Antrix Corporation, ISRO's commercial arm, increasing focused on being a launch service provider, the need for a national space policy becomes even more stark. We have every capability to join leading nations in harvesting resources from space, and need to have a clear position and capability to address legal issues. UN treaties from 1967 are no longer capable of addressing the challenges of the weaponization of space and India needs to consolidate its position as a global space power that has reached Mars.
India has always explored space in a peaceful manner and can become a major proponent of demilitarization in this era of killer satellites after the 2007 test by China. If India wants to encourage private investment in this sector and go beyond its government monopoly on space, it needs to have a defined space law on the books. ISRO would be able to look beyond the day to day activities of satellite launches and invest its time and resources in more far reaching endeavours. Current proposals include industrial zones near the space port on Sriharikota as well as Bangalore. With 100% FDI being proposed by the government, this seems to be the next big wave that can catch the imaginations of citizens, businesses, investors and researchers to name a few.