What you need to know about the laws of space

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said he loses "sleep at night wondering whether we are intelligent enough to figure out the universe." It's a valid concern. We've put a man on the moon, landed on a comet and roved around on Mars, but it's really only the tip of the iceberg. There's so much that we haven't seen and don't know, it seems almost impossible to fully understand the universe.

It's not for lack of effort, though. People and spacecraft keep going up into space investigating the unknown, hoping to glean something new, or finding the Holy Grail -- a place that can sustain life. And as human beings become a more frequent presence in the cosmos we've had to establish rules to ensure that places like the International Space Station don't deteriorate into complete bedlam and that we're not fighting wars over uninhabitable swaths of Martian desert. The international community has actually come together and written regulatory guidelines for space exploration and laws that keep the final frontier from turning into the Wild West.

What is it?

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which is tasked with promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, space law is the "body of law applicable to and governing space-related activities."

UNOOSA states that the "primary goals of space law are to ensure a rational, responsible approach to the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit and in the interests of all humankind." And space law "addresses a variety of diverse matters such as ... [the] preservation of the space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, settlement of disputes, protection of national interests, rescue of astronauts, sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, use of space-related technologies, and international cooperation."

To that end, there are five international treaties and agreements that govern activities in space. (Note that these treaties are only legally binding for those member states that have signed and ratified them):

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1. 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")

The Outer Space Treaty is the most important of the five treaties, as it creates the framework for laws beyond our planet. Since going into effect in October 1967, 103 countries have signed the treaty, including the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Among other things, parties to the treaty agree to keep space a peaceful, non-militaristic zone. They also agree not to send nuclear weapons into orbit around the Earth or on celestial bodies. And the treaty expressly prohibits the use of the moon and other celestial bodies for the "establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers." Or, put more succinctly: There will be no Star Wars; the Mandalorians would most certainly be out; and member states have agreed not to use the likes of a thermal detonator.

2. The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the "Rescue Agreement")

The Rescue Agreement went into effect in December 1968, and it elaborates on certain portions of the Outer Space Treaty. Specifically, it requires that all contracting parties, "prompted by the sentiments of humanity," take all reasonable steps to assist and/or rescue astronauts in distress and subsequently aid them in returning to their launch location. Which means that if the place where Dr. Ryan Stone landed had ratified the Outer Space Treaty, she could expect some help in getting back home.

The Agreement also stipulates that parties will assist in recovering space objects that return to Earth outside of the territory of a launching party.

3. The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the "Liability Convention")

Like the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention was adopted to elaborate on the Outer Space Treaty -- specifically provisions on liability. Adopted in 1972, it established that a launching party is "absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft." And per the convention, "'damage' means loss of life, personal injury or other impairment of health; or loss of or damage to property of states or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international intergovernmental organizations."

Essentially, the Liability Convention says that you can't just launch things into space and hope for the best. If two satellites collide or a damaged space station re-enters the atmosphere and crashes, someone is on the hook.

The convention also establishes that when two or more parties launch a space object together, they can be held independently liable for the full amount of the damages, regardless of a party's share.

4. The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the "Registration Convention")

Surprise, surprise: The Registration Convention deals with the registration of space objects. More specifically, parties to the convention are required to provide to the United Nations, as soon as possible: the name of launching state or states; an appropriate designator of the space object or its registration number; date and territory or location of launch; basic orbital parameters; and the general function of the space object.

5. The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the "Moon Treaty")

And finally, there's the Moon Treaty, which explains how the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty would apply to the moon and other celestial bodies in the solar system. The ones other than Earth, at least.

In an effort to prevent the moon from becoming an area of conflict, the treaty requires that all exploration be exclusively for peaceful purposes. Parties agree not to establish military bases or test weapons on the moon. They agree not to place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the moon. And they pledge to take measures to protect the moon's existing environment.

Oh, and in case you're thinking of making a mad dash for some real estate on the moon, there's a provision for that, too. The Moon Treaty states, "Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place shall become property of any state, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization, or non-governmental entity or of any natural person." The treaty goes on to point out that, "the placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the moon or any areas thereof."

If you're dreams of owning a home with a yard on our moon have just been shattered, don't despair (and read on!). The treaty is currently considered dormant because it hasn't been ratified by any major space power (such as the United States and Russia). So you just might be able to set up shop there.

How are these laws applied?

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Believe it or not, some of these treaties have actually had their day in court, so to speak. In 1978, a Soviet Union satellite, Cosmos 954, crashed onto Canadian soil. Because the satellite contained radioactive material, nuclear debris was spread over northern areas of Canada, causing millions of dollars in damage. A claim was initially brought by Canada using the Liability Convention, with the damages totaling over $6 million (Canadian). Eventually, the parties settled, and the USSR agreed to fork over $3 million (Canadian).

And in 1979, the Skylab space station re-entered the atmosphere, with debris landing in portions of Western Australia. Leading up to Skylab's crash, it became widely known that the space station would eventually plummet to the Earth. NASA scrambled to limit damage; Skylab parties were had; T-shirts were made; The San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 prize for debris (which someone actually collected); and some prepared (or panicked). Fortunately, there were no deaths or injuries and damage was minimal, but the US was fined $400 for littering.

Some private parties have decided to ignore the Outer Space Treaty and tried to stake a claim on real estate in outer space. In 1980, for example, Dennis Hope filed a "Declaration of Ownership" of the moon, claiming he was "the omnipitant [sic] ruler of the lighted lunar surface." He sent copies of his declaration to the USSR, the US and the UN. Hope states that there is a loophole in the Outer Space Treaty, which allows private individuals to stake a claim on a chunk of outer space. Ever the entrepreneur, after claiming ownership of the moon, Hope created Lunar Embassy, a company that sells properties on the moon. (And yes, people are evidently buying.)

In 2000, Gregory Nemitz registered a claim for the asteroid Eros. When NASA sent a satellite to investigate the asteroid, Nemitz (very boldly) responded with a parking ticket. In all fairness to Nemitz, his rate to park on Eros is quite reasonable: $20 per 100 years. But NASA refused to pay, despite the low fee. So, naturally, Nemitz filed suit for default of payment. Not surprisingly, the suit was dismissed since Nemitz can't actually prove ownership of the asteroid.

And in 2012, Sylvio Langevin filed suit in Canada declaring himself the owner of the planets in our solar system as well as four of Jupiter's moons (because claiming ownership of all the moons would obviously be too much). Langvein was hoping to do a little planet collecting. Similar to the Nemitz lawsuit, the judge overseeing this case dismissed it, labeling Langvein a "quarrelsome litigant."

Because legitimate private claims have not really been parsed out in court -- most likely because our limitations in space mean that all one can do is say they own certain bits of space, as opposed to actually setting up a home or a business -- it's hard to say how the Outer Space Treaty treaty will be interpreted. But its day in court will probably come eventually.

Why should you care?

For the same reason that we sent Apollo 11 to the moon and why some want to create a colony on Mars -- because outer space is vastly unknown and undiscovered, and we want to change that. We want to know more. We want to know if life can survive somewhere out there. And we want to continue to explore with manned and unmanned vessels. So, you might just care for the sake of knowledge, because knowing the laws that apply in space helps us to understand it better, even if only just a little bit.

Or, your interest might be more practical. Mars One promises to cart humans on a one-way journey to Mars; efforts have been made to mine asteroids for profit; and plans have been hatched to set up a permanent base on the moon. The point is, we're looking for ways to spend more and more time in outer space, so it only makes sense that you'd want to know what laws apply.

Want to know more?

Of course you do! UNOOSA has a page dedicated to space law that is a pretty amazing place to start. Along with the major treaties mentioned above, the UN General Assembly has adopted several resolutions that are non-binding, but generally followed by the international community. You can find a list of those here. Or, you could read up on laws that various countries have implemented to supplement the main treaties.

For those of you who'd like to be au fait with the laws of space, you should look into UNOOSA's Education Curriculum on Space Law.

You can also keep up with our space page whenever you visit!

[Image credit: European Southern Observatory (The Altar); Shutterstock (United Nations); Shutterstock (Gavel); JAXA (Hayabusa 2); NASA (Curiosity on Mars)]