Humans are on the right track to export our environmental problems to space

to be clear, Space isn’t exactly the Wild West. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 – the grand charter of space law – laid out a framework and basic principles to guide responsible behavior in space. Negotiated and drafted during the Cold War era of heightened political tensions, the binding treaty largely addresses concerns at a time when the apocalypse represented a far more imminent threat than space junk. First, ban the deployment of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. Four other international treaties dealing exclusively with outer space and related activities followed. These include the 1972 Liability Agreement, which establishes who should be liable for damage caused by space objects, and the 1979 Lunar Agreement, which attempts to prevent the commercial exploitation of outer space resources, such as mining resources to establish lunar colonies.

Today, what are now normal space activities (think plans to launch groups of hundreds to tens of thousands of satellites or even ambitious proposals to extract resources from near-Earth asteroids) are subject to the rules set at the time when such activity lay in the realm of science fiction.

The governing documents relating to space law are vague when it comes to the many scenarios that are now emerging, and the Moon Agreement has too few signatories to be effective. As a result, today’s private space companies can look at the founding half-century-old Outer Space Treaty, and the four agreements that followed, and reinterpret them in ways that could favor their bottom line, according to Jakho. For example, asteroid mining efforts have been bolstered by the argument that, according to the Outer Space Treaty, governments cannot extract and retain natural resources from an asteroid—but private companies can. (At best, space treaties do not provide a clear answer about the legality of asteroid mining.) Since private companies prioritize making money, “the basic rules of outer space must be expanded, built upon, and enforced.”

Efforts were Made to address this problem. Regulatory bodies such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and experts from the governmental, non-governmental and commercial space have come together to outline the building blocks for the new administration to address existing gaps in space law. Given the turmoil of outer space activity in recent years, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has formulated some widely accepted guidelines for debris mitigation and long-term sustainability. (The guidelines suggest safe debris mitigation, removal practices, and good behavior in general, such as advising all space objects to be registered and tracked and 90 percent removed from orbit by the end of their mission.) To address policy loopholes in space law – it is a “non-binding law”, a non-binding international instrument that no one is under any legal obligation to comply with. However, some countries – such as the United States, China and India – have incorporated standards from international legal principles for good conduct in space into their national space licensing legislation.

Multinational initiatives led by individual space-faring countries, such as the recent US-sponsored Artemis Accords, suggest an alternative path. Named for NASA’s Dedicated Human Spaceflight Program, they are general guidelines that nations must follow as they explore the Moon—that is, be peaceful, work together, and leave no scrap. However, the agreements have yet to be signed by major US allies and space partners, such as Germany and France. In the meantime, a concrete path to an international agreement could come soon. In the first week of November, representatives from the United Kingdom proposed that the United Nations organize a working group – the first step in treaty negotiations – to develop new standards for international extraterrestrial behaviour.

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