Increasing use of outer space raises new legal issues

NASA proposal to "lasso" an asteroid for study

Even if we don’t think about it every day, space technology has a big impact on our lives. Communications satellites, GPS, remote sensing for weather and disaster management and direct satellite television broadcasts represent a few of the vast range of activities undertaken in outer space. These activities become ever more divergent as technology continues to develop, raising a host of significant legal issues, according to a leading legal expert in this area from the University of Western Sydney.

Steven Freeland is Professor of International Law at the University of Western Sydney, the Marie Curie Visiting Professor at the iCourts Centre of Excellence for International Courts in Denmark, and a Member of Faculty of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law.

He says a number of United Nations international treaties set out the fundamental principles regulating the exploration and use of outer space, as well as an increasing body of national space law.
However, given the inherent delays and resistance to ‘creating’ new specific space–related treaties, the law does not necessarily keep up with the range of technologies opening up new possibilities for space endeavours.

“As with many areas of human activity which are heavily dependent upon the development of new technologies and which change the way we interact with the world, the existing international framework for outer space does not specifically address every new activity that we seek to undertake in outer space,” Professor Freeland says.

“So even though there are national and international frameworks in place to govern our behaviour in space, a whole range of hypothetical questions remain unresolved, which may become problematic as our dependence on the use of outer space continues to grow.”

Professor Freeland says plans to mine asteroids and exploit the natural resources of outer space raise a host of legal issues which are only partially resolved.

“There are some legal provisions already regulating the exploitation of resources, which are based on the notion that space is part of a global commons and, as such, this raises concerns, particularly among the space ‘have-nots’, about whether and how any benefits derived from such exploitation should be shared,” he says.

“There are also other concerns regarding our ongoing use of space. Probably the two most pressing issues in this respect are that of space debris and the environment of space, as well as the use of space technology for military purposes, which has unfortunately been a reality for many years.”

“So, while the current legal framework works reasonably well and sets very important fundamental principles, the future of our activities in this ‘final frontier’ offers both considerable possibilities and opportunities, but also significant challenges, and law will continue to play a crucial part in ensuring that our use of space offers real hope and tangible benefits to all humankind,” Professor Freeland says.


10 October 2013

Contact: Mark Smith, Media Officer

By submitting a comment you acknowledge you agree with the Terms and Conditions.