Space Law

It seems lawyers have extended their empire far beyond earth’s bounds.

There is an area of law, now, called Space Law: initialised by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a set of guidelines for using outer space with consideration and respect.

Perhaps the easiest way to remember the main aspects of space law is to ask yourself: what would Darth Vader do? And then assume there is a law to prevent him.

Thus, where Darth would corner the market in scientific advances, space law says all countries are welcome up there, where every man is equal and every man co-operates. No-one can claim sovereignty there (despite the planting of a very definite flag featuring stars and stripes) by any means, including occupation.

And while Darth favours war as the primary means of communicating with his fellow galactic residents, space law says peace should be assumed. The United Nations and International Law hold sway way up there, beyond our paper-thin atmosphere.

The Death Star is ruled out fairly swiftly. Article IV states there should be no weapons of mass destruction sent into orbit.

Astronauts, it states, are envoys of mankind. If there is an accident, everyone, everywhere should give them all possible assistance. Storm troopers or no storm troopers.

And then we get into the murky stuff. States who are party to the treaty are responsible for the missions they send into space: and will be held internationally liable for damage caused to other state’s kit.

So if Skywalker rear-ends the Death Star he had better be very sure he has legal grounds to do so: or the Rebel Alliance could face a very large bill indeed. It is conceivable that this indeed happened, and that is how the second Death Star was funded.

Yada yada yada. The small print talks about reciprocity, of sufficient advance notice of visits so that everyone can be consulted, risks assessed, feathers smoothed.

There have been many international treaties since. The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts; The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects; the gripping 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space; and The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Despite all that red tape, international lawyers have found it almost impossible to arrive at a definition of ‘outer space’. Which could prove awkward when that Klingon ship clips the Lockheed U2 15 miles above the earth’s surface.

Space lawyers estimate the cut-off point is generally thought to be about 62 miles above the earth’s surface, at the point where orbit becomes possible.

But, like standing the other side of a fence on a public footpath during a pop festival, there is still a bona fide no-strings-attached way to observe space without the law men getting you.

Stand on the earth’s surface: and wonder.

I was busy staring at fairy tales this evening, willing one of them to catch my heart and run away with it. I was being good, avoiding my Russian inclinations and sidestepping Grimm, and wading through Indian ones which were in equal parts dashing, charming and woefully complex.

We had read the children their stories and settled them in bed when a sergeant-major voice declared with a certain flourish: “Right. Everyone up to Felix’s room NOW, please. No excuses. You can’t miss this.”

When my husband gets a bee in his bonnet it is best to sigh resignedly and leave what you are doing. I left the laptop and trudged up those stairs I had just descended. What would it be: an unusual insect in a crevice? A bird’s eye view of some classic car in the car park? A landmark piece of creativity by my son?

No: it was what was in the sky.

Felix has an attic window with a dream skyscape view. And tonight was a Luke Skywalker moment. A razor-sharp scythe of a moon flanked by two silvery planets: Mars, a reddish tinge to its lustre; and Jupiter, a great jewel in the inkiest of black skies.

It is impossible to capture, in word or on camera, the pristine beauty of this piece of the universe. There was something about the arrangement of the three great bodies; the mediaeval way in which the moon, though insignificant in the context of the great reaches of outer space, was large to us, whose seas it moves from day-to-day. And the utter brilliance of the fifth rock from the sun, the largest planet in the universe, a gas giant rendered miniature by the twin miracles of scale and perspective.

And so the fairy tale will wait another day. Tonight we marvelled in a piece of unparalleled beauty, and rejoiced that standing on the surface of this bluest third rock, we can gaze: unfettered by space law.


42 thoughts on “Space Law

  1. Oh dear, you had me giggling! How The Empire funded the Secind Death Star – a wonderful masters thesis for a young lawyer. But HOW would they find the responsible people to enforce payment? Ah well, time and place for speculation is needed.

    How wonderful to have a window like that one. Lucky Felix.

  2. Poem of a post. We saw it too – coming out of Plymouth Guildhall there it was a triangle of wonder in the sky. I held on to my phone all the way home so I would get a photo in a dark-sky zone, but no, instead I watched the moonset as we drove and the silver slither glowed yellow then orange before it was gone, Jupiter still high and bright above.
    Remember: Remember to look up

  3. And you just know that somehow, somewhere, specialist lawyers are salivating in anticipation of a no win-no fee slew of cases against the Klingons (such reckless drivers).

  4. It certainly is a very vast universe that we live in. It is wonderful to have those peaceful quiet moments where we can sit and be still and enjoy gazing into the sky xx

  5. Questioning the presence of the Stars and Stripes in space are you? Do you really expect us to be satisfied with a mere 800 out of country military bases on this planet? We will soon open an embassy in heaven and are negotiating to have St. Peter’s gate painted red, white and blue. See, it’s all about preempting and reach.

  6. What a view from Felix’s room! We have been watching that same arrangement as we rotate towards it some five hours after you do, and from our Felix’s window as well, but I envy you your clarity. Boston, while a wonderful city, throws out a lot of light pollution, and we are only 20 miles away..

    1. We’re 28 from London, Cameron – but we have a black forest next door and I feel sure that helps. Light pollution is a sad little by product of civilisation, isn’t it…

  7. Such a fairy tale this would be, in only those space laws and out-pioneering land, er space grabbers weren’t up there. I had a chuckle over Carl’s comment above. Mars and Jupiter have been putting on a bit of a show, haven’t they? Felix’s moon window is so perfect for this. Onward, and upward . . .

    1. That is absolutely beautiful, Karen: I could stare at it for hours, thank you! And the astounding thing is that there we are, at the centre of that wonder. That’s us, there…

  8. This just thrilled me, Kate! I couldn’t stop staring atbthe night sky–first in my backyard, then front, then from across the street–just gawking and gaping in awe! I’ve been watching the planetary lineup for weeks, but Saturday night I just couldn’t stop staring. I took pictures, too, but mine are nowhere as good as yours! And I had just heard a report about the astronauts in the Space Station needing to occupy a hatch just in case they were endangered by debris from a Russian module gone amok! You’ve raised some fascinating questions in my mind about liability! I hope the goals never veer from cooperation! Debra

    1. Me too, Debra. I think the costs of a war for territory out in space would be grim indeed. Enjoy the beauty of the next few days…we are so lucky to live on such a beautiful planet…

  9. How did Lucas even write Star Wars with so much space-time confusion???

    Your picture is lovely. We are having the same thing over here, and I love looking up and seeing it in the night sky.

      1. I’m a county up and stuck in a town with a limited celestial knowledge, confined strictly to the Big Dipper/Giraffe and the 3 which are apparently someone’s belt. 😉

  10. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen this latest cosmic display, Kate, I’m very often looking out into the Universe, AND I’ve been going on about Venus and Jupiter’s little dance, where I mentioned Mars getting in on the action as well… I must be looking the other way. It just goes to show how many wonders we can miss by not looking in the right direction. At least I’ve seen that smashing photo, which is part way there, so thanks, Kate! 😀

  11. We are shrouded with cloud so limited astral splendour for us 😦 one of our favourite things to do when away in the mountains is to sit out at night and watch the heavens – the lack of light pollution makes everything that much more splendid! Suitably envious of your Felix’s window – will have to add to my bucket list 😉

  12. I saw another photo post of this yesterday and it is just gorgeous. Love all the Darth and Star Wars references mixed in with real life space law…Ha! Space Law indeed, we’ll be just as stupid up there as we are here and I hope we can figure out how not to blow ourselves up.

  13. Dear Kate, . . . thank you for this posting which for me puts my life right now in perspective. Tonight I will go outside and look up at the stars within the darkness of space. And I will bless the Universe for shepherding me. Peace.

  14. Space law and the patenting of genes – the world is a crazy place – but, thankfully, there are still ways to escape, as you have illustrated so beautifully here with this moment in time, Kate

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