The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the mainframe for space law. It recognizes the importance of the use and scientific exploration of outer space for the benefit and in the interests of all countries. It also prohibits national sovereignty in space, including of the Moon and other celestial bodies.

The OST prohibits all weapons of mass destruction in space – in orbit or on other planets and moons – and does not allow the establishment of military infrastructure, manoeuvres or the testing of any type of weapon on planets or moons. As the treaty makes clear, outer space is for peaceful purposes only. Except of course, it is not – nor has it ever been so.

The very first satellite, Sputnik, was a military satellite which kicked off the Cold War space race between the US and the USSR. The militaries of many countries followed suit, and space is now used for military communication, signals intelligence, imaging, targeting, arms control verification and so on.

Peaceful purposes

However, in keeping with international aspirations, space is also being used for all kinds of peaceful purposes such as environmental monitoring, broadcast communications, delivering the internet, weather prediction, navigation, scientific exploration and – very importantly – monitoring the ‘space weather’ (including the activity from the Sun).

There are several other international agreements on space, such as on the rescue of astronauts, the registration of satellites and liability for damage caused by space objects. There is also the Moon Treaty, which governs activities on the Moon and other moons, asteroids and planets.[i](opens in new window)

More recently, states at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in Vienna have agreed on guidelines to deal with the worrying situation of space debris which is cluttering up orbits and posing a danger to satellites, the space station and astronauts.

The problem the international community now faces is that the use of space is changing dramatically and rapidly. There are more satellites than ever – well over 1,000 – and more owners of satellites – almost every country uses information generated from space. Increasingly, however, those owners are not countries, militaries or international organizations but the commercial sector. Very soon, the owners will even include individuals.

Small ‘mini-satellites’ or ‘cube-sats’ are poised to be deployed in space. These can act independently or in ‘swarms’, and are so small that they piggy-back on the launching of other satellites and so are very cheap to launch. This is changing the cost–benefit equation of satellite ownership and use. Developing countries are increasingly dependent on space for communications, the internet and information on, for example, weather systems, coastal activities and agriculture.

Another major development is the advent of asteroid mining. Asteroids contain a wide range of metals and minerals – some asteroids are more promising than others, and some are closer to Earth than others. Several companies have been set up and registered around the world to begin the exploitation of asteroids for precious metals (such as platinum) and compounds (such as rare-earth minerals).

Legally, however, this will be a murky venture. The current international treaty regime prohibits the ownership of a celestial body by a country – space is for all. But does international law prohibit the ownership or exploitation of a celestial body by a private company? The law has yet to be tested, but there are space lawyers who think that companies are exempt. Luxembourg and Australia are two countries that have already begun the registration of interest for space-mining companies.

As humanity becomes more dependent on information that is generated in or transmitted through space, the vulnerability to the manipulation of space data is increasing. The demands on the use of communications frequencies (the issue of spectrum availability and rights), managed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU),[ii] need to be urgently addressed.

There are now constant cyberattacks in space and on the digital information on which our systems rely. For example, position, navigation and timing information such as from GPS or Galileo is not only vital for getting us safely from A to B, but also for fast-moving financial transactions that require accurate timing signals.

Almost all of our electronic systems depend on those timing signals for synchronization and basic functioning. Cyber hacks, digital spoofing and ‘fake’ information are now a real possibility. There is no rules-based order in place that is fit to deal with these types of attacks.

Cyberweapons are only part of the problem. It is assumed that states, if they haven’t already done so, will be positioning ‘defensive’ space weaponry to protect their satellites. The protection may be intended to be against space debris – nets, grabber bars and harpoons, for example, are all being investigated.

All of these ideas, however, could be used as offensive weapons. Once one satellite operator decides to equip its assets with such devices, many others will follow. The weaponization of space is in the horizon.

Attempts to develop rules of the road and codes of conduct, or even to begin negotiations to prohibit weapons in space, have failed again and again.

There are no international rules or agreements to manage these developments. Attempts in Geneva to address the arms race in space have floundered alongside the inability of the Conference on Disarmament to negotiate any instrument since 1996.

Attempts to develop rules of the road and codes of conduct, or even to begin negotiations to prohibit weapons in space, have failed again and again. There are no agreed rules to govern cyber activity. The Tallinn Manuals[iii] that address how international law is applicable to cyberwarfare also address the laws of armed conflict in space, but data spoofing and cyber hacking in space exist in far murkier legal frameworks.

The current system of international space law – which does not even allow for a regular review and consideration of the OST – is struggling to keep up. Space is the inheritance of humankind, yet the current generation of elders – as they have done with so many other parts of our global environment – have let things go and failed to shepherd in the much-needed system of rules to protect space for future generations.

It is not too late, but it will require international cooperation among the major space players: Russia, the US, China, India and Europe – hardly a promising line-up of collaborators in the current political climate.

Filling the governance gaps

Norms of behaviour and rules of the road need to be established for space before it becomes a 21st-century ‘wild west’ of technology and activity. Issues such as cleaning up space debris, the principle of non-interference, and how close satellites can manoeuvre to each other (proximity rules) need to be agreed as a set of international norms for space behaviour.

A cross-regional group of like-minded countries (for example Algeria, Canada, Chile, France, India, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sweden, the UAE and the UK) should link up with UN bodies, including the Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), COPUOS and ITU, and key private-sector companies to kick-start a new process for a global code of conduct to establish norms and regulate behaviour in space.

The UN could be the host entity for this new approach – or it could be established in the way the Ottawa process for landmines was established, by a group of like-minded states with collective responsibility for, and collective hosting and funding of, the negotiations.

A new approach should also cover cybersecurity in space. The UN processes on space and cyber should intersect more to find ways to create synergies in their endeavours. And the problems ahead as regards spectrum management – particularly given the large number of small satellites and constellations that are to be launched in the near future – need urgent attention in ITU.

Create a Global Code of Conduct for Outer Space, Patricia Lewis, Chatham House