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date: 23 May 2018

Space Commercialization and the Development of Space 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.

Shortly after the launch of the first manmade satellite in 1957, the United Nations (UN) took the lead in formulating international rules governing space activities. The five international conventions (i.e., the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue Agreement, the 1972 Liability Convention, the 1975 Registration Convention, and the 1979 Moon Agreement) within the UN framework constitute the nucleus of space law; laying a solid legal foundation for securing the smooth development of space activities over the next few decades. Outer space was soon found to be a place with abundant opportunities for commercialization: with telecommunications services the first and most successful commercial application followed by remote sensing and global navigation services. In the last decade, the rapid development of space technologies brought space tourism and space mining to the forefront as well. With more and more commercial activities taking place on a daily basis from the 1980s on, existing space law faces severe challenges. The five conventions, which were enacted at a time when space was monopolized by two superpowers—the United States and the former Soviet Union—also failed to take into account the commercial aspect of space activities. Although there are urgent needs for new rules to deal with the ongoing trend of space commercialization, the international society faces difficulties in adopting new rules due to diversified national interests. As a result, it adjusts legislative strategies by enacting soft laws. In view of the difficulty in adopting binding rules at the international level, states are encouraged to enact their own national space legislation providing sufficient guidance for their domestic space commercial activities. It is expected that the development of soft laws and national space legislation will be the mainstream regulatory activities in the space field for the foreseeable future.