This treaty, however, has only been signed by 16 nations, all of which are minor players in space exploration.
COPUOUS has also created five sets of principles to support these treaties.
- The “Declaration of Legal Principles” (1963), from which the Outer Space Treaty was created in 1967, lays down guiding principles, including the idea that space exploration is for the benefit of all humans.
- The “Broadcasting Principles” (1982) has to do with television broadcast signals. These principles include the idea of noninterference with other countries’ signals, the provision of information to help with knowledge exchange, and the promotion of educational and social development (particularly in developing nations).
- The “Remote Sensing Principles” (1986) concerns the use of electromagnetic waves to collect data on Earth’s natural resources. Remote-sensing activities are supposed to be for all countries’ benefit and should be carried out in the spirit of international cooperation.
- The “Nuclear Power Sources Principles” (1992) concerns how to protect humans and other species from radiation if a launch goes awry, or a spacecraft flying by Earth accidently crashes to the surface. It’s common for spacecraft exploring the outer solar system to use nuclear power sources for energy, since solar power is so weak out there.
- The “Benefits Declaration” (1996) says that space exploration shall be carried out for the benefit of all states. This was created two years before the International Space Station – an effort of 15 nations – launched its first two modules into space.
The United Nations has also held three UNISPACE Conferences since 1968 (a fourth one will take place in 2018.)
This is what each conference focused on or will focus on:
- UNISPACE I (August 1968): Progress in space exploration, international cooperation and creating an “expert on space applications” within UNOOSA.
- The United Nations body then had several workshops in the 1970s on space applications such as remote sensing, telecommunications and cartography.
- UNISPACE II/UNISPACE 82 (August 1982): Peaceful exploration of space (specifically, how to avoid an arms race). Following the conference, UNOOSA worked more closely with developing countries to develop their space technology capabilities.
- UNISPACE III (July 1999): Protecting the space environment, giving developing countries more access to space and protecting Earth’s environment.
- This led to the Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development, with 33 recommendations for space-faring countries to follow. A follow-up report to the declaration was issued in 2004, five years after the conference.
- UNISPACE+50 (2018): Will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first UNISPACE conference and focus on what COPUOUS should do now that more nations and nongovernmental entities are exploring space.
It should be emphasized again that the U.N. treaties are nonbinding, but there is a sort of international pressure by other nations when a nation strays from the principles.
There have been, however, some debates over the years about some of the major principles of space law.
While the ultimate interpretation of these matters is up to lawyers, here are some of the major questions:
Access to space
This is mostly regulated by country.
The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 covers launch situations by U.S. citizens. Uncrewed rockets heading for space and high altitudes must receive special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under FAA Regulation 101.
In most cases, licenses and permits must be issued from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which examines aspects such as launch site and launch/re-entry vehicles.
The FAA is also working on guidelines to protect space passengers when tourism companies start operating.
Weapons in space
Perhaps the most famous effort at putting weapons into space was the United States’ Strategic Defense Initiative, sometimes nicknamed “Star Wars.”
President Ronald Reagan first announced it in 1983 by. Parts of the system were tested on Earth, but it was never completed. The concern was that the portions of the system with space weapons would violate the Outer Space Treaty.
With half a million dead objects floating in Earth orbit, some nations are now voluntarily taking measures to prevent more space debris – such as deliberately de-orbiting satellites to hit the Earth’s atmosphere.
Without careful care, some experts worry that space access will become restricted by debris, but it is unclear what the legal ramifications are. In 2007, China received international condemnation for deliberately destroying a satellite in Earth orbit, which led to a cloud of space debris.
In 2013, a piece of that debris damaged a Russian satellite.