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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.
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.
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).
Attempt at reconstructing the orbit of the Chinese missiles that flew above Taipei today. A lot of uncertainties but clear that the missiles were around 200 km up in space when they were over the Taiwan landmass> Top and sideways views. Derived orbit -6230 x 220 km x 47 deg pic.twitter.com/y8dMDvEMMOAugust 4, 2022
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).
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.
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.
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 more: Space 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.
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.
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