John Pazmino
 2005 December 26
    Despite a cold rain, edging into sleet, and the threat of a 
transit labor strike only hours later, the NYSkies Astronomy Seminar 
met on Thursday 15 December 2005. Stephen Lieber, the speaker, waited 
a while for latecomers before beginning his talk on 'International law 
of outer space'. In the meanwhile we caught 
up on several news items like the leapsecond to be intercalated on New 
Year's Eve, the fate of Japan's Kayabusa asteroid probe. We also took 
up various astronomy questions, like the cause of the sharp boundary 
of the Sun's photosphere By 7:30OM the audience accumulated to ten 
    I give below a brief overview of Lieber's talk, with a few 
extensions from other sources. 
Treaties and resolutions
    Lieber reviewed the concepts and principles behind the various 
treaties issued by the United nations since the 1960s. He showed the 
distinction between 'treaty' and 'resolution'. A UN resolution is a 
statement by the UN on a specific matter and is not a binding 
instrument. Nations do not sign a resolution; it is enacted by a vote 
of the UN General Assembly. 
    A treaty is a formal document usually written in general terms, 
approved by the UN General Assembly, and then signed by nations. When 
a nation signs a UN treaty, its provisions become part of the nation's 
own laws. A treaty can evolve from previous resolutions. 
    The United States balks at signing certain UN treaties for outer 
space and asserts it is not obligated to observe them. This action 
comes from the American supremacy in outer space, utterly 
unmatched by any other nation or group of nation. The US can feel that 
certain treaty articles unduly restrict its operations, actual or 
potential, in space. 
Treaty language
    A United Nations treaty, as a piece of law, is a refreshing 
cleanly worded instrument, altho vague by American legal standards. 
Part of the reason is that a treaty deals with broad concepts rather 
than detailed actions. An other is that the treaty is converted into 
the five UN languages, for words and grammar rather peculiar to outer 
space. The UN languages are English, French, Spanish, Russian, 
Chinese, from those of the victors in World War II. 
    The UN is behind the US in gender-neutral language. The newer 
treaties still speak of 'mankind', 'manned space flight' and similar, 
US literature in the 1980s and 1990s already switched to terms like 
'humanity', 'humankind', 'human space flight'. 
Signators of treaties
    The United Nations is an organ of countries. In the early days of 
space programs, it was assumed that, due to the immense expense and 
effort, space projects would be conducted by nations, not private 
groups. The notion of private companies varies widely across nations, 
from devil-may-care to government fronts to prohibition. Thus defining 
a nongovernmental spacefaring group is impossible, Hence, all outer 
space treaties apply ONLY to countries, not corporations or other 
private groups. 
     While nongovernmental space groups are not part of the treaties, 
the signators are bound to oversee and regulate them within their 
countries in accordance with the treaties. Thus a private company that 
acts contrary to a treaty from within a signator country can be taken 
to task by that country. 
    Note that the space operation must be seated or home in the 
country, which is generally taken to mean that the launch of the 
objects associated with the activity must be inside the country. A few 
companies are trying to evade treaty coverage by launching from the 
high seas, which are outside the jurisdiction of any country. 
    There is question whether a country no longer existing can pass on 
its treaty obligations to its suceessor. The prime example is the 
Soviet Union, which died in 1992. Are the treaties signed by the USSR 
binding on its 15ish new countries? The US is voluntarily assuming so, 
altho these countries did not specificly reaffirm the treaties with 
their own signatures. 
Prior experience 
    The law of outer space banks off of prior experience with the high 
seas, Antarctica, and international aviation. There are similarities 
and differences among these other bodies of law, but they are the 
foundation for developing space law. 
    In addition to the roof of the United Nations space treaties, 
nations may arrange among themselfs for handling assorted situations 
regarding outer space. Such agreements can not undo the treaty if any 
of the parties is a signator of that treaty. 
    A nation who does not sign a given UN treaty is not legally bound 
by it. Complaints from other countries, debate in the UN, and public 
spotlight often move the country to observe the treaty. 
    An other important precept of treaties in general is that in 
formally declared warfare they are suspended or abandoned. If the 
United States declared war on Iraq -- which it din't! -- it could 
field nuclear weapons in space as part of its military needs. 
Realm of outer space
    No treaty actually defines 'outer space'! It is usually considered 
the realm above Earth where an artificial satellite can remain in 
orbit, at least for a few weeks, but his in NOT stipulated on paper.  
If aerodynamic methods can be used to operate a craft, it is 
considered an aircraft. It is not covered by space law. Existing 
aeronautics and aviation laws apply. 
    A nation can restrict or prohibit aircraft flights over its 
territory but not space vehicles. There is the functional problem that 
a country can warn an aircraft, which can then maneuver away. A 
spacecraft, being essentially a free-fall body, can not be so simply 
    Any planet, moon, asteroid, comet, other celestial body is 'in 
space' and is governed by space treaties. A natural celestial body 
that arrives on Earth, like a meteorite, is not part of the space 
treaties. It belongs to the receiving country. 
    For history's sake the first deliberate launch of a craft into 
outer space was the German V2 rocket in tests in 1943. During World 
War I Germany used a super cannon that hurled shells about 150 
kilometers. The peak of the shell's trajectory would have been in 
space, but at the time no one appreciated that feat. 
Launch country 
    The 'launch country' is a cardinal concept in outer space law. It 
is the nation who physicly sends the craft into space. It is NOT the 
owner of the craft or rocket. It's the owner of the facility that 
placed the object in space. A British telcomms satellite loaded on a 
Ukrainian rocket is launched from Nigeria's spaceport. Nigeria is the 
launch country for treaty purposes. 
    It is from this concept of launch country that many nations prefer 
to do their own launches and not avail of foreign launch services. If 
their craft lands in an undesirable foreign land, it is handed back to 
the other country who launched it, not the craft's home country. 
Property in outer space 
    Outer space is declared to belong to all humanity. No nation can 
assert sovereignty over a region of space or on any celestial body. 
Any nation may send vehicles, probes, humans, to any place in space. 
Some private companies claim that because they are not a 'country' 
this lack of property right does not apply to them. They assert 
ownership of a this or that celestial body and pretend to sell plots 
of it. In the United States, a signator of many space treaties, these 
companies are covered by those treaties. This follows from the 
signator's obligation to govern private space operations within it by 
treaty provisions. 
    In this sense, outer space is similar to the high seas, where 
ships may travel freely and openly anywhere in the world without first 
answering to property claims. There is territorial water, within which 
the adjacent country has jurisdiction, like it has jurisdiction over 
the atmospheric region above it. 
    If a nation does work to extract or recover material from space, 
that material belongs to the that country. The actual example is 
sample collection from the Moon and [hopefully] an asteroid or comet. 
A potential situation is mining, extraction, lifting natural resources 
from the Moon or Mars. 
    This is sometimes called the 'dirt-in-shovel' concept. As long as 
the material is part of the celestial body, it's common domain for 
all. Once it's in your shovel, it's yours. 
    The ambiguous case would be if a nation roped and captured an 
entire asteroid, as is proposed by some futurists. It may be that 
merely landing on an asteroid is not 'capturing' it, but moving it out 
of its natural orbit into an other one may be.
    The launch country has ownership of Earth items it places in 
space, like a orbiting or lunar habitat. It can not claim ownership of 
the land under or the space around the habitat. 
Selling space lands or names 
    Many private companies pretend to own real estate on the Moon, 
Mars, or where ever in space and offer it for sale. They make the 
offer by official-looking news media ads and websites. Similar 
practice comes from firms who sell names for stars, galaxies, and so 
on in space. 
    Spacefaring groups, working on a shoestring of funding, at times 
go ballistic about these land sales! They struggle endlessly to get up 
money for bona fide space advocacy, then hear and see ads for land on 
the Moon. It is plausible that in one night of television ads a space 
land company rakes in more money than the spacefaring group does in a 
year! A similar scene falls onto astronomers, also starved for 
funding. They witness the star naming companies haul in thousands of 
dollars a day. This could fund any of a variety of legitimate science 
    These private firms don't come under UN treaty because the 
treaties apply only to countries. But because countries agree that 
space has no property rights. The land or name purchase can not be 
enforced. The buyer does not own the land or name. Any one may upsurp 
it. A company may, for instance, sell 'your' star to some one else 
with nothing you can do about it. In the US, consumer and trade laws 
requires a disclaimer about the legality of these offers. Laws in 
other countries may be lax or lacking. 
Ownership of spacecraft 
    The country that LAUNCHES the object owns it continuously while it 
is in space and when it returns to Earth. There are no unclaimed 
spacecraft, even dead or abandoned ones. They remain the launch 
country's property.  
    When an Earth object returns to Earth, like an astronaut capsule 
or decaying satellite, the launch country still owns it, regardless of 
where it lands. The receiving nation must either let the launch 
country retrieve the object or collect and return it to that country. 
    Within the United States, a space launch by a private party is 
still considered an American launch for treaty purposes. It is also 
subject to a raft of internal regulations applying to launches from US 
territory. Boeing, as one example, offers launches from an ocean 
rig,outside US waters. This scheme, SeaLaunch, hopes to escape US 
internal space provisions. 
    If a spacecraft breaks up, by explosion or jettison, the pieces 
are still the property of the launch country. To relieve the ownership 
responsibility, the object must be removed from space. This is the 
case for craft that incinerate in the atmosphere. The Galileo probe, 
owned by the US, is now no longer in space, having been spiked into 
the Jupiter atmosphere and is completely consumed. 
Peaceful uses of space 
    Outer space must benefit all humankind. No country can restrict or 
ban participation in space benefits by other countries. No nation may 
interfere with the space operations of an other nation, as by building 
a Mars base too close to a foreign one. Any benefit from exploitation 
of outer space must be constructively available to all nations. This 
includes samples, mineral ore, scientific information. 
    Only peaceful application of space are allowed. There is a whole 
body of contention about what is 'peaceful'. There is already allowed 
spy satellites and military communications and support satellites. The 
American GPS network is a military project; it's run by the Air Force. 
The Clementine lunar orbiter probe was also an American military 
project. These, so far, are considered 'defense' operations rather 
than aggressive ones. 
    Changing military technology is blurring the line between 
offensive and defensive projects. The trend seems to be that if the 
operation does not directly aggress onto an other nation, it is 
defensive. Thus passive monitoring and surveillance is permitted, even 
radar and laser tracking of foreign spacecraft. 
    So far it is allowed that military craft, apparatus, crew may 
operate in space if their mission is defensive or peaceful. NASA could 
fly a spacecraft whose camera optics were built by the Army, so long 
as the camera is then used in a nonaggressive manner. 
    The United States has held back on some treaties for having 
articles it feels conflict with its ordinary and usual military 
business in space. The US is plain the world's leading spacefaring 
country, bar none. 
Sharing the benefits 
    For the foreseeable future only a few very affluent and 
experienced nations will conduct substantial activity in space and 
derive useful benefit from it. The treaties call for a genuine effort 
to share these benefits with all humanity and not keep them for the 
particular spacefaring country. 
    Science samples must be available for study by all countries. 
Resources developed in other planets must be open for all nations to 
avail of. This feature of space law so far prevented the pell-mell 
rush to build factories, mines, wells on the Moon. Any wealth derived 
from these projects must be realisticly open for others to benefit 
    While there is for sure secret information collected for military 
purposes, if the information can prevent harm to other countries, it 
must be released publicly. A possible case would be the discovery of a 
radioactive outcrop on Mars that could harm instruments on foreign 
rovers passing near it. 
Limited resources 
    Some beneficial resources in space may be limited. Examples 
already to hand are the longitude slots on geostationary orbit and 
radio frequency bands for satellite communications. The radio spectrum 
is allocated by the rules of the launch country, but must not 
interfere with those assigned by other countries. Potential 
interference with ground-based frequencies in the receiving countries 
is handled by existing telecommunications regulations. 
    Geostationary orbit has a set of longitude slots. The satellites 
can not be placed closer than a degree or so apart in longitude. This 
is due to station keeping leeway, wide beamwidth of Earth receivers, 
and frequency conflict. 
    There is now some argument to somehow better allocate these 
limited resources among nations, with no definite solution as yet. 
Some countries on the equator claim that the geostationary slots 
standing above them 'belong' to them. They are seeking to rent or tax 
the use of these slots by foreign nations. 
    A new limited resource would be the potential pool of ice at the 
lunar south pole. If one nation develops it into a water supply for 
human habitats, it must allow other countries to tap into the ice also 
for their own bases. 
Propaganda from space 
     One of the major uses of outer space is broadcasting radio, 
television, Internet by one country into an other. The receiving 
country can declare the content to be offensive and seek ways to 
interdict the broadcast. The obvious example today is the debut of 
Howard Stern on Sirius Satellite Radio on 9 January 2006. Stern was 
penalized several times for his out-of-compliance ground-based 
broadcasts. So he moved his show to space, outside US jurisdiction. 
    The content can be political or social. Already there is agitation 
against space-based feminism shows beamed to nations who don't care 
about such issues. The major problem is that the signal is available 
to any one with a suitable receiving device, 
    From experience with radio and television on the ground, there is 
no way to prevent the transmission into the receiving country. The 
receiving country may jam the signal, ban radio and television sets 
capable of picking up the signal, broadcast opposing views. 
Imaging and sensing 
    An early benefit from space operations is imaging and sensing. 
These range from the first crude cloud pictures for weather monitoring 
to today's centimeter-level resolution photography. For the most part, 
the images and data are openly available to anyone. Either they are 
free for the asking or there's a fee from a commercial source.
    The rise of Internet and the rampant distribution of satellite 
data and images thru it seems to be in tune with the principle of 
sharing the benefits from space. However, some countries are raising 
severe complaints that the open market for pictures and data of just 
abut any spot on Earth poses threat to sensitive facilities. Once in a 
while, associated with a news item, there is published for all to see 
a high-resolution photo of some secret missile station in an 
undesirable country. 
    The biggest distributor of space data, by far, is the United 
States. By internal laws, space benefits must be available to 
humankind as part of American society and ideals. More over, most 
private companies in the US follow the same principle; Pay the fee, 
here's the picture. 
    Goggle Earth, as one instance, offered in fall of 2005 that 
all nations give it a list of their secret locations with coordinates, 
description, purpose, kind of facilities, and so on. Google would post 
this list on its website. Visitors will know where they are not 
supposed to look. No country so far took up this offer. 
Liability and damages 
    The damage or other harm caused by a space activity is the 
responsibility of the launch country. It must make good on claims and 
costs from the damage. So far, there is the one major instance of 
Cosmos 954, a Soviet spy satellite that decayed and fell into Great 
Slave Lake, Canada in 1978. It carried a uranium-fueled power supply 
that so far was never recovered and is presumed still in the lake. The 
Soviet Union paid Canada about $3 million as damages. 
    The launch country may have internal procedures to pass on the 
liability to an other entity, such as the company that built the craft 
causing the harm. 
Emergencies in space 
    Countries must come to the assistance of endangered foreign humans 
in space. Aid can be supplies, medical attention, shelter, protection 
from space environment, return to Earth. This is an extension of the 
rule of the high seas and Antarctica. 
    As yet there is no generally agreed on distress system like '911' 
in the United States telephones or 'SOS' for Morse code. The imperiled 
country just alerts others of the danger, describes it adequately, and 
allows the aid from other countries. 
Weapons in space 
    No nuclear or mass-destruction weapons may be placed or used in 
outer space. The first push for this law was the nuclear test ban 
treaty of the early 1960s, which included wording about deployment or 
testing in space. Mass-destruction includes the usual chemical and 
biological methods, but allows for new ones like microwave beams that 
boil up the brains of every one in a large town. 
    For nuclear devices, the ban is not only on weapons as such but 
any detonations of nuclear devices, like for spaceship propulsion. It 
does allow nuclear devices for electric power, heating, manufacturing, 
and other nondetonative functions. The radioisotope thermoelectric 
generators of interplanetary probes are permitted. 
    If there is any chance that a nuclear device could return to Earth 
in an uncontrolled manner, the device must be built to return intact 
with as little release of radioactive material as possible. 
    The precipitating incident was the fall of Cosmos 954. A potential 
incident was the Cassini probe in the 1990s. It had a nuclear power 
pack. To reach Saturn it swang by Earth just above the atmosphere. The 
aim could have dipped it too low and it could have decayed to Earth 
with the possible spill of its nuclear fuel. 
    The space treaties do not deal with suborbital weapons, even if 
the delivery method carries the weapon into space momentarily. ICBMs, 
cruise missiles, and drones are not banned by the space treaties. 
    Also missed from space treaties are weapons other than those for 
mass destruction. These include ordinary firepower, chemical 
explosives, collision devices, spray or blinding devices. laser beams, 
and high energy ion beams. 
Contamination of outer space 
    Operations in space must not pollute or otherwise degrade the 
environment of outer space or of any celestial body. Occasional inert 
harmless debris, such as parts of a planet probe left behind when it 
lifts off back into space, are allowed. Likewise, a probe, like 
Huygens or the Mars rovers, are allowed to remain on their planets 
after they expire. 
    The intent is to prevent use of space for waste dumps or 
industrial effluents. Thus, large-scale, which no treaty 
specificly defines, pollution is prohibited. It is historicly 
interesting to note that this treaty article was approved several 
years before the American environmental movement began on Christmas 
Eve of 1968. 
    Objects placed in space must be sanitized to remove Earth germs 
that could take root elsewhere. The extent of cleansing depends on the 
mission. A satellite in low Earth orbit may get a lesser treatment 
because it remains near Earth and will incinerate on in the air. A 
probe meant to land on other worlds must be thoroly cleaned of all 
possible Earth life. 
    Spent rockets, dead satellites, failed interplanetary probes 
should be deliberately removed from space or placed in safe locations 
where they can be monitored. 
    Any thing brought from space to Earth must be handled so that it 
does not contaminate Earth. While probably, based on experience with 
the lunar explorations, there is no exotic germ or insect that can 
hide in a return capsule to run riot over Earth, we simply don't dare 
take the chance. On this concept the earlier Apollo astronauts were 
put in isolation chambers to guard against releasing some strange 
space hazard on Earth. 
Space traffic control 
    There is nothing in space like the air traffic control system on 
Earth. Each space activity is operated separately from others, except 
as may be agreed between nations on their own. A country may place a 
satellite in any orbit it wants, at any elevation and inclination; 
send probes to any celestial body; land robots or humans on any 
celestial body. 
    Nations are required to register their successful launches with 
the Secretary General of the UN (actually a commission he charged with 
this chore). The launch country provides basic data about the launch 
such as name, date and hour of launch, launch location, general 
purpose, initial orbital elements or interplanetary trajectory. The 
purpose may be quite vague, so countries can protect sensitive 
    Apart for record-keeping, these data are needed by other nations 
to avoid interfering with current space operations. These data are a 
continuation of the early COSPAR registration scheme, 
Spacefaring concerns 
    Steve's overview of space law should be of paramount concern for 
spacefaring advocates. These principles and precepts must be seriously 
considered in their promotion of space exploration and exploitation. 
    Yet, in my experience with such advocates, there seems to be 
wholesale absence of awareness or even care about the law of outer 
space! Futurist ideas like nuclear bombs to propel rockets, farming 
and fishing on other planets, terraforming, microwave power beams, 
strip-mining, covering half a planet with photovoltaic panels, using 
craters as garbage dumps, firing rail guns, floodlight mirrors in 
orbit, building 'Los Angeles' towns, chopping up whole asteroids, 
seeding human genes are all bantered about as if there can be no 
problem or worry. 
    It almost sounds like the green ethic belongs only on Earth! One 
argument in this regard is that Earth resources are obviously finite 
and must be treated with all due respect. Space, on the other hand, is 
the infinite bontitude, where after exhausting one world, there are 
endless other fresh ones over the hills. 
    There was right here on Earth a whole society built on this 
premise. On was the 18th and 19th century industrial movement. The 
other was the 20th century Soviet Union. Do we really want such 
cultures diffused thruout the solar system? 
    Steve's talk would be a capital item on the lecture slate of 
spacefaring groups. 
Followup resources
    Steve handed out samples of documents relating to space law. The 
first place to stop at is the United Nations Office for Outer Space 
Affairs. This is a roof agency that handles UN matters about outer 
space. It reports to the Secretary General. This office maintains the 
texts of the UN treaties and resolution for outer space, discusses and 
debates at meetings, studies new situations. 
    This office is homed in Vienna, Austria, but it interacts with UN 
headquarters in New York. With the current rebuild of the New York 
campus and temporary relocation of its tenants, just about all UN 
business may be severely curtailed for the rest of this decade. 
    An other major resource is the American War College of the US Air 
Force. The Air Force is the largest and most powerful single entity 
engaged in outer space operations. It maintains literature relating to 
military uses of space, with the American interpretation. Military 
agencies of other nations likely have similar literature for public 
    Lieber's talk tapered down at about 9:30, the latest ever closing 
time for the Seminar! Normally we would try hard to close up by 9. We 
chatted briefly on the stairs and in the street, then headed off home. 
    The next Seminar is on Thursday 5 January 2006, 7PM, at St Paul's 
Lutheran Church, 315 W 22 St. That's near 8 Av in Chelsea. Start the 
New Year with good astronomy!