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Lyall and Larsen, Space Law: A Treatise, 2009
On 4 October 1957 – that’s nearly sixty years ago – the world was startled by Sputnik I. Since then space has transformed modern life. We watch satellite tv. Email, data and other Internet communications go through orbiting relay points. Global positioning systems let us find our way on unfamiliar routes or to roam the countryside in relative safety. We can even track and find wandering Alzheimer sufferers using that technology and terrestrial telephony. Aircraft, ships and motor vehicles can now know exactly where they are. Weather is monitored and increasingly accurate predictions made. Ships and planes avoid storms. Potential disasters, volcanic and otherwise, are predictable, and we react to dire events using satellite technology to inform our actions. We monitor land use, farming, vegetation coverage, and aridity. Guano deposits allow the detection from space of otherwise inaccessible penguin colonies. We track fisheries, ocean health and climatic events such as El Niño and its cognate La Niña.
Such benefits apart, space has also allowed major developments in our understanding of the universe. We have been to the Moon and will go again. Our robotic rovers explore Mars and report their findings. The Hubble Space Telescope and its successors have shown something of the beauty and complexity of our Universe and given our astronomers much to work on. While this blog was being written the New Horizons probe was transmitting fascinating views of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon. Having scrutinised some of the outer planets the Voyager probes and Pioneers 10 and 11 have left the solar system and are now in interstellar space. Their radio-isotopic batteries may keep them in touch with Earth for a little while yet.
Space Law undergirds all these developments. One fundamental is that all satellite use requires good radio communication between space and ground stations. The mechanisms of the International Telecommunication Union, based in Geneva since 1865, provide these, allocating appropriate radio frequencies for space purposes from 1959. The other fundamental is that there should be international agreement as to the ground-rules for the use of space. This was achieved initially through the United Nations, and implemented in national legislation. In 1963 the UN adopted a declaration of general principles to govern the activities of states in space and between 1967 and 1979 adopted five international treaties to flesh out these principles. Importantly the 1967 Outer Space Treaty provided that there is no national sovereignty in space. Space is free for all to use, but not to the exclusion of others. Treaties cover such matters as state duties to license and supervise their own activities in space and those of their nationals, state responsibility for these activities, the rescue and return of astronauts, the registration of satellites, the consequences of accidents, and (less successfully) how the Moon and other natural space objects are explored and (perhaps later) exploited. Later UN Resolutions and recommendations have dealt with matters including how states permit remote sensing, use nuclear power sources on spacecraft, register space objects, disseminate the benefits of space and mitigate space debris. Within the UN the Office for Outer Space Affairs has been helpful in developing good practice and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) continues to discuss and debate.
There is much still to be done. How can financial loans be secured over satellites in orbit? Can asteroids be mined and what rules should apply? Should the crewing of long-range explorations be organised on military or civilian lines? Who should cope with an asteroid on collision course with Earth, and how? What if extraterrestrials are detected?
We were there at the beginning. We met in 1963 as part of the intake that year to the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. Thereafter FL went into academe at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and PBL into government service in the US Department of Transportation while also teaching as an Adjunct Professor in Georgetown University, Washington, DC, where his duties included acting as lawyer for the team that prepared the US global positioning system for civilian use. He has also been involved in negotiations about security interests in space objects. And so our interest in space continued. We both published articles, and FL a book.
By the mid-2000s Space Law had become a wide field, difficult for a single individual adequately to encompass, so, pooling our knowledge, we came together to produce our Treatise on Space Law. Our aim was – and is – readably to inform, sharing the scope and potential of this vibrant emergent field of law to benefit both practitioners and students.
Our understanding is that our aim has been met, thanks to Ashgate. A second edition is under way.
Francis Lyall and Paul B. Larsen