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Expert Voices

Outer space is not the 'Wild West': There are clear rules for peace and war

the silhouette of a space shuttle against earth's atmosphere in twilight
Space exploration is becoming a more feasible reality, prompting a need for international cooperation. (Image credit: (NASA/Unsplash))

This article was originally published at The Conversation. (opens in new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Kuan-Wei Chen (opens in new tab), Executive Director, Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, McGill University
Bayar Goswami (opens in new tab), Arsenault Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University
Ram S. Jakhu (opens in new tab), Full Professor, Former Director, Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University
Steven Freeland (opens in new tab), Emeritus Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

The release of the first images taken by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will inspire generations with the infinite possibilities that outer space holds. Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that only peaceful, safe, sustainable, lawful and legitimate uses of space are undertaken for the benefit of humanity and future generations.

In pursuit of this, over the past six years McGill University and a host of collaborating institutions around the world (opens in new tab) have been involved in the drafting of the "McGill Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (opens in new tab)."

In August, the first volume of the "McGill Manual" (opens in new tab) was published. It contains the 52 Rules, adopted by consensus by the group of experts. The rules clarify the international law applicable to all space activities conducted during peacetime and in times of tension that pose challenges to peace.

Growth of space infrastructure

Since the beginning of the Space Age 65 years ago (opens in new tab), we have witnessed tremendous strides in space exploration that have benefited life on Earth (opens in new tab). Research into space technologies inform many of our modern conveniences (opens in new tab). We bring back and study mineral samples from asteroids (opens in new tab).

For decades, we have used satellite technologies for positioning, navigation and timing (opens in new tab). The United States' global positioning system — of which there are Chinese, European, Russian, Japanese and Indian variants (opens in new tab) — is the backbone for essential applications such as emergency search and rescue (opens in new tab)precision farming for food production (opens in new tab)air traffic navigation (opens in new tab), the security of the financial and banking system (opens in new tab), and the synchronization of time across cyber networks.

Our increasing reliance on space infrastructure makes modern economies increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of accidents, as well as unlawful and irresponsible acts affecting the exploration and use of space.

Financial, navigational and meteorological systems rely on satellite technologies. (Image credit: (Shutterstock))

Space on Earth

In 2009, there was a communications blackout over North America after an accidental collision between a defunct Soviet satellite and Iridium communications satellite. This was a stark reminder of how vulnerable Earth operations are to events in space.

Driven by geopolitical tensions, several governments have tested anti-satellite weapons (opens in new tab) that leave behind a trail of space debris that will remain in orbit for decades, or even centuries (opens in new tab).

Space debris poses a grave danger to other functioning space objects, not to mention to people and property on the ground should pieces fall to Earth. This month, China launched several ballistic missiles that reached 125 miles (200 kilometers) above sea level (opens in new tab), potentially threatening satellites that operate in low Earth orbit, which represents prime space real estate used for crucial communications and remote sensing worldwide (opens in new tab).

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Space systems are not just vulnerable to missiles, but may be interfered with or destroyed through other means such as lasers, spoofing, jamming and cyberattacks. The human costs and consequences of a conflict in space could be devastating beyond contemplation (opens in new tab).

Affirming the law

As countries and commercial space operators study how to explore and use the moon and other celestial bodies for valuable resources (opens in new tab), we need to understand that outer space is not a lawless "Wild West." In fact, there is a clear body of fundamental legal principles that have applied to all space activities for many decades.

Read moreIs current space law equipped to handle a new era of shifting power structures in space? The Conversation Weekly podcast transcript (opens in new tab)

Since the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit (Sputnik I), there has been clear consensus (opens in new tab) that outer space, planets and asteroids must be explored and used in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Charter (opens in new tab).

These foundational principles are elaborated in a series of United Nations treaties on space law (opens in new tab) subscribed to by virtually all spacefaring countries. In addition, especially with the increased number of commercial and private space operators, countries are adopting national space laws to regulate and oversee how all national space activities are conducted in accordance with international law.

Space Shuttle Columbia's STS-4 mission, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in 1982, carried military missile detection systems. (Image credit: (NASA/Unsplash))

Independent and impartial

The U.S. government and others have affirmed that "conflict or confrontation in space is not inevitable (opens in new tab)." In the current geopolitical environment, it is necessary to affirm and clarify the laws that will prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings, and in turn foster transparency, confidence-building and some co-operation in space.

A significant body of international rules and legal principles applies to all space activities, including military space activities. These are, however, sometimes subject to differing interpretations that create confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty.

Read moreSpace exploration should aim for peace, collaboration and co-operation, not war and competition (opens in new tab)

The McGill Manual is an independent and impartial effort which clarifies and reaffirms (opens in new tab) that existing laws are relevant and applicable to accommodate new activities and applications. These laws impose constraints on irresponsible and dangerous actions, and meet new challenges in outer space.

The manual's development involved over 80 legal and technical experts (opens in new tab). They confirmed, for instance, that there is an absolute prohibition on the testing and use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in space and that harmful interference with the space assets of other states is illegal. The experts also highlighted that the right of self-defense related to military space activities must take into consideration the unique legal and physical aspects of outer space.

Peace in space

Indigenous peoples in Canada (opens in new tab) and Australia (opens in new tab), as with many cultures and civilizations across the globe (opens in new tab), have long looked to the stars for guidance and inspiration.

Governments and commercial operators in space must understand that space is a shared global commons (opens in new tab), where the activities of one country or company will have implications for everyone else. The publication of the McGill Manual marks a major milestone in supporting ongoing international efforts (opens in new tab).

These internationally agreed laws must inform peaceful exploration and co-operation in space. The fate of future generations depends on this.

This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab).

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Steven Freeland
Emeritus Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

Steven Freeland is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Western Sydney University, where he was previously the Dean of the School of Law, and Professorial Fellow at Bond University. He also holds Visiting or Adjunct positions at various other Universities/Institutes in Copenhagen, Vienna, Toulouse, Hong Kong, Montreal, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai and London.

Prior to becoming an academic, he had a 20-year career as an international commercial lawyer and investment banker.

He is a Member of the Australian Space Agency Advisory Board and has been an advisor to the Australian, New Zealand, Norwegian and several other Governments on issues relating to national space legislative frameworks and policy. He has represented the Australian Government at Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) meetings and was appointed in June 2021 by UNCOPUOS as Vice-Chair of a 5-year Working Group looking at issues regarding the exploration, exploitation and utilisation of space resources.

He has also been a Visiting Professional within the Appeals Chamber at the International Criminal Court, and a Special Advisor to the Danish Foreign Ministry in matters related to the International Criminal Court.

He is a Co-Principal of specialised space law firm Azimuth Advisory, a Director of the International Institute of Space Law, and a Member of the Space Law Committee of the International Law Association and the Space Law and War Crimes Committees of the International Bar Association. In addition to co-Editing the Annotated Leading Cases of International Criminal Tribunals book series, he also sits on the Editorial Board / Advisory Board of a number of internationally recognised academic journals.