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Space Law and the Future of Space Exploration

  • 08 Apr 2024

Space law encompasses the legal framework governing activities conducted beyond Earth's atmosphere. It comprises a collection of international agreements, treaties, conventions, and resolutions established by organizations like the United Nations, alongside regulations set by individual nations.

These regulations cover a broad spectrum of issues, including environmental preservation in space and on Earth, liability for damages caused by space objects, dispute resolution mechanisms, astronaut rescue protocols, information sharing regarding space hazards, utilization of space technologies, and fostering international collaboration. Additionally, countries enact their own laws pertaining to space exploration and activities.

Space Legislation

Space legislation can be categorized into two main areas:

(a) International Space Law

(b) National Space Law (e.g., legislation governing space activities in India)


International space law pertains to regulations governing activities and exploration beyond Earth's atmosphere. This legal framework is primarily established through five instruments adopted under the United Nations (UN) via the General Assembly's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The UNCOPUOS has played a pivotal role in the development of international space law.




  • The Outer Space Treaty, formally titled the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, came into existence in October 1967.
  • Signed by 103 countries and ratified by key nations such as the UK, Russia, and the US, this treaty aims to regulate and oversee the actions of member states concerning all celestial bodies and the moon.
  • The Outer Space Treaty assigns international accountability to member states for their activities in outer space, encompassing the moon and other celestial bodies, regardless of whether these endeavors are carried out by governmental bodies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
  • They are obligated to ensure that such activities adhere to the treaty's principles, which emphasise peaceful exploration and use of outer space, international cooperation, non-appropriation, and non-weaponization. Additionally, states must authorise and supervise all relevant activities.
  • The Outer Space Treaty also establishes liability for damage, holding launching states internationally accountable for any harm caused to another State Party, its citizens, or entities on Earth, in the atmosphere, or in outer space, resulting from their space objects or components.


  • The Rescue Agreement, known formally as the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, is an international accord outlining the responsibilities of states regarding space personnel rescue.
  • While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 simply mandates rendering assistance to astronauts, the Rescue Agreement offers some clarity by referring to "personnel of a spacecraft," although this phrasing remains ambiguous regarding individuals not traditionally considered astronauts, such as space tourists.


  • The Liability Convention, enforced on 1st September 1972, serves to define liability for space-related damage.
  • Currently, it has been signed by 22 states, aiming to govern International Liability for Damage Caused by Space.
  • Article 7 of the Outer Space Treaty outlines the liability of the launching state, holding it accountable for compensating damages caused by its space objects on Earth's surface or to aircraft, as well as for damages due to faults in space.
  • Notably, under this convention, it is the state, not private individuals, that bears international liability.
  • States are encouraged to establish national laws to protect their interests when engaging in collaborative space research and to limit liability in cases of damage. However, the absence of such laws does not absolve liability under this convention.


  • Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, commonly referred to as the Registration Convention, became effective in 1976.
  • Currently, it has been ratified by 72 states as of February 2022.
  • This agreement mandates that states provide the United Nations with data concerning the orbit of each space object they launch.


These include five key declarations concerning space exploration and usage:

  • Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space (1963)
  • Declaration governing the use of satellites for television broadcasting
  • Declaration regarding remote sensing from outer space
  • Declaration regarding the use of nuclear power sources in outer space
  • Declaration on international cooperation in space exploration for the benefit of all states, particularly developing countries

Space Legislation in India

At present, India's legal framework concerning space exploration is notably sparse. While statutes like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Act of 1969 and the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) Guidelines of 2011 exist, they offer limited regulation over space-related activities.

India's space industry has historically been tightly controlled, overseen directly by eminent figures and even managed from the Prime Minister's office. While this centralised approach has led to significant achievements, such as ISRO's remarkable successes in space technology, there's a growing need for dedicated space laws as India moves towards privatisation.

Existing space regulations in India primarily consist of policy frameworks rather than comprehensive laws. These policies include:

(a) SATELLITE COMMUNICATION POLICY (SATCOM): Introduced in 1997, this policy aims to advance satellite communication, launch capabilities, and encourage private investment. However, it was deemed insufficient, leading to the formulation of norms, guidelines, and procedures.

(b) NORMS, GUIDELINES, AND PROCEDURE (SATCOM) POLICY, 2000: These regulations outline procedures for setting up satellite systems by private Indian companies with less than 74% foreign equity, including rules for using the INSAT satellite system.

(c) REMOTE DATA SENSING POLICY, 2011: This policy allows the transfer of high-resolution imaging services for private use, excluding sensitive imagery data. It aims to open the remote sensing sector for developmental activities.

(d) ISRO TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER POLICY: Designed to boost private participation and investment, this policy enables outsourcing manufacturing of satellite components and other space-related technologies to national and international companies, freeing ISRO to focus on research and development.

Legal Challenges

  • Space Debris Management: As the number of satellites and space missions increases, countries face the challenge of managing space debris generated by their activities. Compliance with international guidelines for debris mitigation is essential.
  • Resource Utilisation: Nations must address questions regarding property rights and equitable sharing of space resources, such as minerals or energy sources. Developing international agreements is essential to ensure fair access and prevent conflicts over resource exploitation.
  • Sovereignty and Non-Appropriation: The Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming celestial bodies as their own, emphasizing peaceful use. Balancing this with sovereignty rights becomes crucial as space activities become more ambitious.
  • Environmental Concerns: Space activities can generate debris and contamination, affecting the space environment. Developing legal frameworks for responsible and sustainable practices is necessary to mitigate the impact on space ecosystems.
  • Peaceful Use and Security: Upholding the peaceful use of outer space requires international cooperation and robust legal mechanisms to address security concerns.
  • Liability and Accountability: Crafting legal frameworks to address liability issues in a rapidly evolving space environment is essential for resolving disputes.
  • Cybersecurity and Data Sharing: Safeguarding against cyber threats and establishing protocols for secure data sharing are critical legal aspects in space activities.
  • Private Sector Involvement: Legal clarity regarding ownership, liability, and regulations is necessary to ensure responsible and commercially viable practices in space.
  • International Collaborative Projects: Intricate legal agreements are required to govern contributions, responsibilities, and intellectual property rights among nations participating in collaborative projects like the International Space Station.
  • Intellectual Property Rights: Developing legal frameworks to protect intellectual property rights generated through space exploration and research is essential to encourage innovation.
  • Global Governance Mechanisms: Effective global governance mechanisms are needed as nations pursue ambitious space goals. International cooperation, agreements, and forums play a crucial role in harmonizing legal norms and ensuring a peaceful and collaborative space environment.

Future of Space Exploration

The year 2024 promises to be a pivotal period in space exploration, building upon significant accomplishments in 2023, such as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and India’s Chandrayaan-3 missions. Here are some notable upcoming missions:

  • Europa Clipper Mission:
    • Objective: NASA’s Europa Clipper aims to explore Jupiter’s moon, Europa, renowned for its icy surface and potential subsurface saltwater ocean.
    • Significance: The mission seeks to evaluate Europa’s habitability for extraterrestrial life by examining its icy shell, geology, and ocean.
    • Launch Details: Scheduled for liftoff on October 10, 2024, aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, with arrival at Jupiter anticipated in 2030.
  • Artemis II Mission:
    • Program Goals: A part of NASA’s Artemis program, Artemis II aims to return humans to the Moon, paving the way for sustained lunar presence and future Mars missions.
    • Mission Specifics: Following the uncrewed Artemis I, Artemis II will mark the first crewed mission orbiting the Moon since 1972, slated for November 2024.
  • VIPER Lunar Mission:
    • Mission Overview: VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) is designed to explore the Moon’s south pole for volatiles like water and carbon dioxide.
    • Technology and Schedule: Equipped to withstand extreme lunar temperatures, VIPER is set to launch in November 2024, focusing on identifying resources for future human exploration.
  • Lunar Trailblazer and PRIME-1 Missions:
    • SIMPLEx Program: NASA's Small, Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program provides affordable rideshare options for these missions.
    • Objectives: Lunar Trailblazer will orbit the Moon to map water locations, while PRIME-1 will test drilling technology, both planned for mid-2024.
  • JAXA’s Martian Moon eXploration (MMX) Mission:
    • Mission Focus: The goal of JAXA's MMX mission is to investigate the origin of Mars' moons, Phobos and Deimos.
    • Science Operations: The spacecraft will conduct a three-year mission, including landing on Phobos and returning a sample to Earth, with a launch targeted around September 2024.
  • ESA’s Hera Mission:
    • Mission Purpose: Hera, led by the European Space Agency, will investigate the Didymos-Dimorphos asteroid system, following NASA’s DART mission’s kinetic impact in 2022
    • Planetary Defense: Hera will evaluate the impact of DART’s collision and study the asteroids’ physical properties, with a scheduled launch in October 2024.

What Needs to be the Road Ahead?

  • Establishing New Space Norms and Regulations:
    • Addressing issues like space debris cleanup, non-interference principles, radio spectrum management, proximity rules for satellites, and stricter regulations for rocket manufacturing.
    • Initiating a collaborative effort involving a cross-regional group of nations, UN bodies (such as UNOOSA, COPUOS, and ITU), and key private-sector entities to develop a global code of conduct for space activities.
  • Encouraging International Cooperation on Potential Instruments:
    • Promoting the adoption of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC), which is a non-legally binding, voluntary international instrument aimed at enhancing responsible behavior in space.
    • Supporting the Space2030 Agenda proposed by the Outer Space Committee in 2018 to leverage space-related activities for sustainable development and socioeconomic benefits globally.
  • Leadership Role for India:
    • Recognizing India's interest in maintaining a peaceful outer space for economic and security reasons.
    • Advocating for discussions within organizations like BRICS, SCO, and engaging with existing forums such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to shape global space governance frameworks.
  • Intellectual Property (IP) Recognition in Space:
    • Urging the establishment of an internationally accepted legal framework governing intellectual property rights in outer space activities to facilitate the involvement of private entities in space technology development.
  • Ensuring Responsible Behavior in Space:
    • Recognizing the critical role of space systems in national and international security and economic activities.
    • Emphasizing the importance of shared policies and practices among spacefaring nations to promote peaceful space exploration and utilization.


Concerted efforts are needed to address the challenges and opportunities in space exploration, including the establishment of international norms, fostering cooperation, recognizing intellectual property rights, and adopting a rational approach to research. India, with its emerging space capabilities, has a significant role to play in shaping the future of space governance and diplomacy on the global stage.


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