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date: 11 December 2017

International Satellite Law

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

International space law is generally considered to be a branch of public international law. In that sense, it constitutes a “subset of rules, rights and obligations of states within the latter specifically related to outer space and activities in or with respect to that realm.” Dealing with an inherently international realm, much of it had been developed in the context of the United Nations, where the key treaties are even adhered to by all major space-faring countries. In addition, other sources—including not only customary international law but also such disputed concepts as “soft law” and political guidelines and recommendations—also contributed to the development of a general framework legal regime for all of mankind’s endeavors in or with respect to outer space.

Originally, this predominantly included scientific and military/security-related activities, but with the ongoing development of technology and a more practical orientation, it increasingly came to encompass many more civilian and, ultimately, even commercial activities, largely through downstream applications originating from or depending on space technology and space activities.

Important here are the overarching, usually more theoretical aspects of international space law, which include how it was developed or continues to be developed, what special roles do “soft law” or the military aspects of space activities play in this regard, and how do national space laws (also) serve as a tool for interpretation of international space law.

Also important is the special category of launches and other space operations in the sense of moving space objects safely into, through and—if applicable—back from outer space. Without such operations, space activities would be impossible, yet they bring with them special concerns; for instance, in terms of liability, the creation of space debris and even the legal status and possible commercialization of natural resources produced from celestial bodies.

Finally there are the major categories of space applications—as these have started to impact everyday life on earth: the involvement of satellites in communications infrastructures and services, the most commercialized area of space applications yet; the special issue of space serving to mitigate disasters and their consequences on earth; the use of satellites for remote sensing purposes ranging from weather and climate monitoring to spying; and the use of satellites for positioning, navigation, and timing.