Space Law & Geopolitics

Will Caterpiller and John Deere become Space companies ?

The sixth session of the Course on “The Business and Economics of Space” was on Thursday, Nov 18. This session was on Space Law, Geopolitics and Sustainability. From a commercial viewpoint the session would help answer questions about appropriate legal frameworks if you wanted to find, own, use or sell space resources. It was also very timely due to a recent geopolitical event with the Russians blowing up one of their defunct satellites with no warning to the rest of the world.

The key takeaways were in the following areas
– There are a variety on National and International Legal Frameworks on Use of Space Resources
– What the Regulatory Roadmap would look like for Commercial Space Miners
– A primer on Geopolitics from our cohort member, Joseph Abakunda
– The need to enforce responsible behaviour of space for the benefit of all

To guide us on the legal aspects of exploiting space resources we had a guest professor Christopher Johnson. In his in depth presentation he discussed

· the 1967 Outer Space Treaty - Rights, Obligations and Prohibitions
· the 1979 Moon Agreement
· National Approaches ; USA, Luxembourg, UAE, Japan
· International Approaches; UN Working Group on Space Resources 
· NASA and USA led Artemis Accords
· Regulatory Roadmap for Asteroid Miners

I won’t get into the details of the legal frameworks that he outlined. Interested readers can find resources online on each of those treaties and legal frameworks. As a Canadian , who grew up in Northern Ontario hard rock mining country, I was very interested in what the regulatory roadmap look like for space miners , whether asteroids, lunar or other planets. There will be a role for Canadian mining and geophysical expertise in such ventures (plus I am old enough to remember when the Apollo astronauts came to my hometown of Sudbury, ON to train for their eventual lunar missions because of our black rock !)

United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space

The Artemis Accords drafted by NASA and the U.S. Department of State, the Accords establish a framework for cooperation in the civil exploration and peaceful use of the Moon, Mars, and other astronomical objects like asteriods.They are explicitly grounded in the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which signatories are obliged to uphold, and cite most major U.N.-brokered conventions constituting space law.

Even under the Artemis Accords there remain many open questions to space resource exploitation;

· What governmental agency should you seek permission from ?
· What is the application process like ? What do you need to disclose ?
· How long does it take, how much does it cost ?
· How is an interest in a space resource perfected
   a) Just claim it and its yours ? Or do you have to protect it first
   b) What is to prevent a "gold rush "of claims ? Klondike days in space !
   c) Whats the review process for applications of claims ? Interagency ? International ?
   d) Will a regulator enforce claims against "claim jumpers" ?
· What are the limits or boundaries of a permit to mine space resources ?
   Time bound ? i.e. you can mine location x for y years
   Extent bound ?  i.e. you can recover x tons or resource y (but nothing else)
   Activity bound ? i.e. you can mine, but must sell to x, or utilize only for y purpose

That led me to think that there are a lot of similarities to the law and practices that have evolved in other frontiers such as the Ocean, Antarctica, the Internet and radio. There are two great books that come to mind for those interested; “The Pirate Organization : Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism” by Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne and “The Outlaw Ocean : Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier” by Ian Urbina. You can find more about them here and here

We then got a primer in Space Geopolitics, from Joseph Abakunda of the Rwanda Space Agency. Joseph told us of the activities of China, on the African continent, with their Belt and Road Initiative . China would finance enormous loans to developing nations for building infrastructure . The loans became a Debt trap when the nations could not afford to repay and were forced to cede China with goods, land, strategic resources or ports. Often there were corruption scandals, and human rights violations. This is underreported here in North America.

We then had two distinguished guests; Dan Ceperley, the Founder and CEO of LeoLabs and Christopher Johnson of the Secure World Foundation. We had a lively hour long Q&A session mainly centred around the recent Russian DA-ASAT test .

LeoLabs image with ISS in Orange and Space Debris created as thos white circles

Russia’s surprise direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile test on Nov 15, blowing apart a defunct Russian satellite raised important legal and policy questions about the prohibition on the use of force in outer space. The highly destructive weapons test – which forced astronauts aboard the International Space Station to seek shelter and created a long-lasting field of space debris – underscores the need to urgently develop and enforce international standards for responsible behaviour in space.

Two hours went by quickly but we were able to at least get a taste of some of the very complicated issues in the Space law and Geopolitical realms.