a, Science & Technology

The final frontier: Law and politics in space

For many, space is the final frontier. The challenges associated with its exploration are immense, but so are the potential rewards. Current international law proclaims that space belongs to all of humankind, but some believe that it is only a matter of time before the potential for financial gain puts that law to the test.

Consider, for instance, the asteroid 253 Mathilde. According to Asterank, a website which catalogues asteroids, it measures roughly 50 kilometres across and is composed largely of metals such as gold, platinum and palladium, with an estimated market value in excess of $100 trillion.

So when the technology finally arrives, and some group—be it a private company or a country—prepares to launch a mining mission that will make them rich, will this prohibition on owning any portion of space make such a mission illegal? Or can a group legally extract minerals without needing to claim possession of the asteroids that they extract from, much like how it is legal to fish in international waters?

These are just a few of the questions that Cassandra Steer, Arsenault fellow at the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, strives to answer. Steer, who joined McGill in 2015 from the University of Amsterdam, offered many insights into these issues during a presentation hosted jointly by the McGill Pre-Law Society and the McGill Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA) this past Monday.

Speaking on the increasing commercialization of space, Dr. Steer suggested that outer space and the high seas are fundamentally similar.

“[The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] says no one can own the high seas,” Steer explained. “But companies might be able to go in and extract [from them] […] it’s a way of regulating [the high seas] without giving away sovereignty; it doesn’t give ownership to any state, [or even] to the companies that are busy there, and I think we need a similar model in space.”

Yet as important as the still-developing economics of space are, there may be an even more pressing concern: The increasing militarization taking place in Earth orbit.

According to the BBC, an object launched by Russia in 2014 performed a series of manoeuvres in Earth’s orbit which are consistent with it being a satellite inspector—a small satellite designed to adjust its orbit around the Earth in order to approach other satellites and perform reconnaissance on them, or possibly even destroy them.

Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from stationing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit or on other celestial bodies, there are no restrictions on satellite-to-satellite weapons, or on conventional, non-nuclear, satellite-to-ground weapons beyond a general statement that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes. Steer explained, however, that the lack of clarity and efficacy in the current space treaties might pose problems.

“The risk of placing a laser weapon in space [is unclear],” Steer said.. “I would say it’s forbidden, others would say it’s a little bit vague, because we don’t know how to define a weapon in space.”

One of Steer’s current research goals is expanding the current international law of armed conflict to the field of space. She is working with the University of Adelaide and the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law to create a manual similar to those that already exist for land, sea, air and cyber warfare, to outline things like what kinds of weapons may legally be used in space warfare.

This manual is one that the world might not need to consult, but in a world of satellites, missiles and lasers, its importance is undeniable.

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