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date: 22 September 2017

Outer Space Treaty

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

Negotiated at the United Nations and in force since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has been ratified by over 100 countries and is the most important and foundational source of space law. The treaty, whose full title is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, governs all of humankind’s activities in outer space, including our activities on other celestial bodies and many activities on Earth related to outer space. All space exploration and human spaceflight, planetary sciences, and commercial uses of space—such as the global telecommunications industry and the use of space technologies such as position, navigation, and timing (PNT)—take place against the backdrop of the general regulatory framework established in the Outer Space Treaty.

A treaty is an international legal instrument that balances rights and obligations between states and exists as a kind of mutual contract of shared understandings and responsibilities between them. Negotiated and drafted during the Cold War era of heightened political tensions, the Outer Space Treaty is largely the product of efforts by the United States and the USSR to agree on certain minimum standards and obligations to govern their competition in “conquer” space. Additionally, the Outer Space Treaty is similar to other treaties, including treaties governing the high seas, international airspace, and the Antarctic, which all govern states in their conduct outside of their national borders. The treaty is brief in nature and only contains seventeen articles, yet it is not comprehensive in addressing and regulating every possible scenario. The negotiating states knew that the Outer Space Treaty could only establish certain foundational concepts such as responsibility, liability, non-weaponization of space, the treatment of astronauts in distress, and the prohibition of non-appropriation of celestial bodies. Subsequent treaties were to refine these concepts, and national space legislation was to incorporate the treaty’s rights and obligations at the national level. Although the treaty is essential to the regulation of activities in outer space, in the early 21st century the emergence of new issues such as satellite servicing missions, the problem of space debris and the possibility of space debris removal, and the use of lunar and asteroid resources, stretch the coherence and continuing adequacy of the treaty and may occasion the need for new international legal rules.