Space Law

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Context: Recently it was reported that the “world’s first space crime” may have been committed by a NASA astronaut. In this context, let's look at the need for space law and the laws currently governing the space. 

Prelims: Current events of national and international importance.

  • GS II- Important International institutions, agencies, and fora- their structure, mandate.
  • GS III- Awareness in the fields of IT, Space, Computers, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and issues relating to intellectual property rights.

What is Space Law? 

  • Space law is the body of law governing space-related activities, encompassing both international and domestic agreements, rules, and principles.
  • Parameters of space law include space exploration, liability for damage, weapons use, rescue efforts, environmental preservation, information sharing, new technologies, and ethics.
  • Other fields of law, such as administrative law, intellectual property law, arms control law, insurance law, environmental law, criminal law, and commercial law, are also integrated within space law.

Laws currently governing the space:

  • The law which is applicable to the NASA astronaut's case is the International Space Station Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA).
    • The drafters of this agreement had made provisions to meet such a contingency. Article 22 of the Agreement concerns itself with criminal jurisdiction and states that countries that are mentioned in the agreement may exercise criminal jurisdiction over personnel in flights who are their respective nationals. Hence, the laws of the U.S. will be applicable in this situation concerning the first space crime.
  • The origins of space law date back to 1919, with international law recognizing each country's sovereignty over the airspace directly above their territory, later reinforced at the Chicago Convention in 1944.
    • The onset of domestic space programs during the Cold War propelled the official creation of international space policy (i.e. the International Geophysical Year) initiated by the International Council of Scientific Unions. 
  • Since the Cold War, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Outer Space Treaty”) and the International Telecommunications Union have served as the constitutional legal framework and set of principles and procedures constituting space law.
    • Further, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), along with its Legal and Scientific and Technical Subcommittees, are responsible for debating issues of international space law and policy.
    • The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) serves as the secretariat of the Committee and is promoting Access to Space for All through a wide range of conferences and capacity-building programs.

Need for framing Space laws: 

  • Challenges that space law will continue to face in the future are fourfold—spanning across dimensions of domestic compliance, international cooperation, ethics, and the advent of scientific innovations. Furthermore, specific guidelines on the definition of airspace have yet to be universally determined.
  • NASA executives recently announced that parts of the ISS will be opened up for more commercial opportunities. Such steps could provide a fillip to filming movies or commercials in space, space tourism, sending astronauts of space-ambitious countries into space, and much more.
  • Although there are legal documents that govern space, such as the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, the Registration Convention, the Rescue Agreement, and the Liability Convention, none of them comprehends a detailed framework to cater to criminal disputes that might arise on commercial space vessels, which will have personnel and space tourists from different jurisdictions.
  • Space ambitions could lead to an increasing number of autonomous space stations established by countries such as India and China.  In such a scenario, far-sighted laws are essential to cater to every situation of potential criminality that might occur.

What should India do?

  • It is not inconceivable that India then might have to become a party to the IGA or contemplate a perceptive treaty with ISS nations to meet legal contingencies to dock its space vehicle there.
  • If so, India will have to include provisions relating to offences in space in the Indian Penal Code, as that could be material in situations involving outer space, Indian citizens, and space equipment.
    • India might also need to formulate new international agreements on space or sign MOUs to that effect.
  • The same national pride that emerged out of India’s ambitious plan to reach Mars on its first attempt must be blended with the formulation of visionary laws, clear of legal ambiguities, which cater directly to the needs of rapidly evolving space science.
  • It is imperative that India’s legal prowess is therefore applied urgently and rigorously to the situational complexities of space exploration.
  • Only by keeping apace with the explosive growth in space technology can India hope to remain at the forefront of scientific development in this exciting field.

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