The release of the first images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will inspire generations with the endless possibilities that outer space holds.
Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that only peaceful, safe, sustainable, lawful and legitimate uses of outer space are undertaken for the benefit of humanity and future generations.
With this in mind, over the past six years, McGill University and a host of collaborating institutions around the world have been involved in the writing of the McGill Handbook on International Law Applicable to the Military Uses of Outer Space. .
In August, the first volume of the McGill Handbook is 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 carried out in peacetime and in times of tension that pose challenges to peace.
Growth of space infrastructure
Since the start of the space age 65 years ago, we have witnessed enormous advances in space exploration that have benefited life on Earth. Space technology research informs many of our modern conveniences. We bring back and study mineral samples from asteroids.
For decades we have used satellite technologies for positioning, navigation and timing. The United States’ Global Positioning System — of which there are Chinese, European, Russian, Japanese and Indian variants — is the backbone of critical applications such as emergency search and rescue, precision agriculture for food production, air navigation, financial and banking system security, and time synchronization across cyber networks.
Our growing reliance on space infrastructure makes modern economies increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of accidents, as well as illegal and irresponsible acts affecting the exploration and use of space.
space on earth
In 2009, there was a communications blackout over North America after an accidental collision between a former Soviet satellite and the Iridium communications satellite. It was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of ground operations to events in space.
Driven by geopolitical tensions, several governments have tested anti-satellite weapons that leave behind a trail of space debris that will linger in orbit for decades, if not centuries.
Space debris poses a serious hazard to other functioning space objects, not to mention people and property on the ground if pieces fall to Earth.
This month, China launched several ballistic missiles that reached 200 kilometers above sea levelpotentially threatening satellites that operate in low Earth orbit, representing prime space used for crucial communications and remote sensing around the world.
Space systems are not only vulnerable to missiles, but can be disrupted or destroyed by other means such as lasers, spoofing, jamming, and cyberattacks. The human costs and consequences of conflict in space could be devastating beyond consideration.
affirm the law
As countries and commercial space operators explore how to explore and use the moon and other celestial bodies for valuable resources, we must understand that outer space is not an anarchic “Wild West.” In fact, there is a clear set of fundamental legal principles that have applied to all space activities for many decades.
Since the launch in 1957 of the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit (Sputnik I), there has been a clear consensus that outer space, planets and asteroids must be explored and used in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.
These fundamental principles are elaborated in a series of United Nations space law treaties to which virtually all countries engaged in space activities have subscribed.
Furthermore, especially with the increase in the 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.
Independent and impartial
The US government and others have asserted that “conflict or confrontation in space is not inevitable.”
In the current geopolitical environment, there is a need to affirm and clarify the laws that will prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings, and in turn promote transparency, confidence building and some cooperation in space.
An important set of international legal rules and principles apply to all space activities, including military space activities. However, these are sometimes subject to divergent interpretations which create confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty.
The McGill Handbook is an independent and unbiased effort that clarifies and reaffirms that existing laws are relevant and applicable to accommodate new activities and applications. These laws place constraints on irresponsible and dangerous actions and address new challenges in outer space.
The development of the manual involved more than 80 legal and technical experts. They confirmed, for example, that there is an absolute ban on the testing and use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in space and that any harmful interference with the space assets of other states is illegal.
The experts also underlined that the right of self-defence related to military space activities must take into account the unique legal and physical aspects of outer space.
peace in space
The Indigenous peoples of Canada and Australia, like many cultures and civilizations around the world, have long looked to the stars for guidance and inspiration.
Governments and commercial operators in space must understand that space is a global commons, where the activities of one country or company will have implications for all others. The publication of the McGill Handbook marks an important step in supporting ongoing international efforts.
These internationally agreed laws should guide peaceful exploration and cooperation in space. The fate of future generations depends on it.
Kuan-Wei Chen is Executive Director, Center for Research in Air and Space Law, McGill University; Bayar Goswami is an Arsenault Doctoral Fellow at McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law; Ram S. Jakhu is Full Professor, former Director of the Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University, and Steven Freeland, Emeritus Professor of International Law, University of Western Sydney
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.