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Space Law in Paris

Once again, I spent a few days in March in the heart of Paris listening to people talk about space law and doing some talking about space law myself. Owing to Easter and a few other things I have only had the chance to post this today. Friday 23 March was the European Centre for Space Law’s Practitioner’s Forum which focused on cyber issues in space.[1] The Practitioner’s Forum operates under ‘Chatham House Rules’ so I’m unable to go into too much detail but will discuss the general gist. Overall it was a very interesting day which have provoked quite a few thoughts. As I tweeted on Friday, one thing that is clear is that cyber, just like space, is not only intrinsically and inherently multi-disciplinary but also cross-disciplinary, many, most if not all other fields, disciplines, industries have come to rely on cyber. Space itself is part of the cyber realm and therefore cyber issues are also space issues, particularly the arena of cyber security. Another thing that is key is that a strong technical understanding is important for discussing cyber issues however it isn’t sufficient to only be technically knowledgeable, returning to the multi and inter-disciplinary theme. As stated it was an interesting day and it is clear that there is quite a bit more work to do on the subject.


An attempt at a selfie with the Eiffel Tower

The next day was the Young Lawyer’s Symposium and this is something I can discuss in greater detail. The first thing to say about the Young Lawyer’s Symposium is that it was impressive to see the depth and breadth of talent developing in the space law sector. There were a few different panels all interesting, and rather than regurgitate the full details of the presentations I will hit upon a few themes and thoughts. The first panel discussed space debris and the issue of large and/or mega constellations of satellites. Both are becoming increasingly important topics garnering increasing degrees of attention. One interesting comment that was made more than once was while we are increasingly talking about debris mitigation (i.e. not making the problem worse), which is, of course, important, we don’t spend enough time talking about how to deal with the existing problem. There are people, companies, and organisations (such as the European Space Agency which hosted the Symposium) who are thinking about and working on clearing up the existing space debris. This is vital as we may have already reached a point of no return, and space is a vital and important asset to society, to the economy and to future generations, rendering it unusable would be about as stupid as doing nothing about climate change…

The second panel was focused on reusable launch vehicles and on orbit servicing. Reusable launch vehicles are always an interesting topic, especially as SpaceX is having quite a bit of success making anything that isn’t at least partially reusable seem rather quaint. Although some of the main concerns around reusable launch vehicles are about those that can also be potentially classified as ‘aeroplanes’ because then there are potentials for clashes between air and space law particularly because there is no fixed legal boundary between airspace and outer space. It is also interesting because both the United Kingdom[2] and New Zealand[3] have recently enacted new laws dealing with sub-orbital and orbital launches.


Young Space Lawyers, ESA HQ, Paris

On orbit servicing is also a developing and interesting industry[4] that has particular interest to me because it seems the logical customer for the embryonic space mining industry and space mining legal issues is my primary research focus. There are a few companies now that are actively pursuing on orbit servicing which can encompasses a wide range of operations but refuelling and repairing satellites is more or less the gist of it. These activities may require new rules, particularly with regard to liability and insurance, or new ways of thinking about and applying existing laws rules and so are a new and exciting area for space law.

The third panel was the one which I was part of and basically focused on issues of statehood and long term or permanent settlement in outer space. Part of the problem with settlements and states in outer space is Article II of the Outer Space Treaty. Article II says that states cannot appropriate outer space, the Moon, or other celestial bodies. Space lawyers spend quite a bit of time discussing what exactly this means, and my PhD is pretty much about this issue, so I can’t do it justice in a short blog post (though I have talked about it before) but as international law essentially requires states to have territory it is difficult to create a state in outer space without violating Article II of the Outer Space Treaty unless it is interpreted to apply to Earth based states only (although that isn’t without problems.) This issue also arises for long term or permanent moon bases or Mars cities as they are occupying physical space on the Moon or other celestial bodies which also causes Article II issues. My talk was on the concept of ‘space object’ and how it may need to be developed and adapted to deal with some of the new and novel activities being undertaken in outer space. I focused on two issues primarily, the first was pointing out that given that a space object has to be launched into outer space an object manufactured in outer space, especially if it is made from material acquired from outer space (like say an asteroid), might not qualify as a space object. This could cause a few issues as our registration and liability frameworks rest upon the concept of space object… a simple solution to this could be to simply delete the word launched from our definition of a space object and simply regard a space object as a human made object in outer space. However, that in and of itself may cause a few issues but it certainly warrants further consideration. The second issue I discussed was the prospect of using the space object concept to form a foundation for a legal framework for space settlements, outposts, and bases. Basically, what I’m arguing is that we should regard a potential lunar base or Martian outpost as functionally no different from Skylab or the International Space Station. This isn’t necessarily a perfect solution, but it wouldn’t require a significant overhaul of the space law regime.

Finally, there was a rather interesting presentation on the legal issues that could arise as a result of the search for extraterrestrial life. Particularly what do we do when we find it. There are moral and ethical concerns here, especially with regards to protecting life, but we also get into Star Trek like territory about the potential for a need for rules to protect harmful interference with other life. While it is easy to dismiss this as the stuff of sci fi and not a serious topic of discussion for space lawyers, we are actively searching for life in our solar system and beyond, it is sensible and prudent to discuss what we should and shouldn’t do when and if we find it.

A trip to Paris is always worthwhile, Paris is truly one of the world’s great cities, and this trip proved no different, even with a public transport strike forming my welcome committee. And thank you to the European Centre for Space Law for two interesting and thought-provoking events, I look forward to many more in future. I am in Vienna for the Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space this week as part of the delegation of the Space Generation Advisory Council, I will be tweeting quite a bit while here, so you can follow me on twitter @thomcheney or the SGAC Space Law and Policy Project Group which I am a co-lead of, @SGACSpaceLaw, I will also endeavour to post an entry about this week’s space law discussions this weekend.


[1]US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, has recently published a report on cybersecurity in space, which is worth a read

[3]High Altitude and Outer Space Activities Act 2017 –

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