Space Briefing Book:
International Space Law
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
There are five international treaties underpinning space law, overseen by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS).
The Outer Space Treaty
The treaty is the foundation of international space law for signatory nations (108 in 2019). The treaty presents principles for space exploration and operation:
- Space activities are for the benefit of all nations, and any country is free to explore orbit and beyond.
- There is no claim for sovereignty in space; no nation can “own” space, the Moon or any other body.
- Weapons of mass destruction are forbidden in orbit and beyond, and the Moon, the planets, and other celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes.
- Any astronaut from any nation is an “envoy of mankind,” and signatory states must provide all possible help to astronauts when needed, including emergency landing in a foreign country or at sea.
- Signatory states are each responsible for their space activities, including private commercial endeavors, and must provide authorization and continuing supervision.
- Nations are responsible for damage caused by their space objects and must avoid contaminating space and celestial bodies.
The Rescue Agreement
“The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space”
Signatories agree to take all possible actions to help or rescue astronauts in need, and if applicable, return them to the nation from which they launched. Additionally, signatories agree to help return to the sponsoring nation any space objects that land on Earth outside of the country from which they were launched.
The Moon Agreement
“The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”
The Agreement states that celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes, that they should not be contaminated, that the UN should always be made aware of any station on a non-Earth body, and that if resource mining on the Moon becomes feasible, an international regime must be established to govern how those resources are obtained and used. The United States is not a signatory of the Moon Agreement.
The Liability Convention
“The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects”
Signatories take full liability for any damage caused by their space objects and agree to standard procedures for adjudicating damage claims.
The Registration Convention
“The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space”
Expanding a space object register, the Convention empowers the UN Secretary-General to maintain a register of all space objects.