An Introduction to Space Law

Published September 1, 2023

The Space Age began on October 4, 1957, when the then-Soviet Union sent Sputnik I , a human-made device, into space. Subsequently, numerous launches and research have been conducted in space, including the demarcation of space itself with the Kármán line. However, new studies project that the space industry is estimated “to generate revenue of more than $1 trillion or more in 2040, up from $350 billion,” which can include satellites, commercial aviation, and tourism. With this enormous growth, there are numerous legal and ethical concerns ranging from space ownership to the sustainable development of space tourism, including space junk, and space security.

This article provides a broad explanation of the current international space laws that primarily consist of numerous international treaties negotiated by the United Nations (UN) and resolutions concluded by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which “administers the treaties and advises the international community on space policy matters.”

Outer Space Treaty

The Treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, is commonly referred to as the Outer Space Treaty. Initially passed in 1967, 127 countries signed or ratified the treaty as of 2012. The Outer Space Treaty provides for several principles including, the following:

The exploration and use of outer spaces shall be carried on for the

 benefit and in the interests of all mankind.

  • Outer space and celestial bodies are free for exploration and use by
  • all States.
  • Outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national
  • appropriation.
  • No weapons of mass destruction are permitted in outer space.
  • The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively
  • for peaceful purposes.
  • States shall be responsible for their national activities in outer
  • space, whether carried on by governmental or nongovernmental entities.
  • The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space shall
  • require the authorization and continuing supervision by the
  • appropriate State.
  • States shall retain jurisdiction and control over their space objects
  • and any personnel thereon.
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.
  • States shall avoid the harmful contamination of outer space.

The Rescue Agreement

The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Signatories to this treaty agree to take all possible actions to help or rescue astronauts in need and, if applicable, return them to the nation from which they launched. Additionally, signatories agree to help return to the sponsoring nation any space objects that land on Earth outside of the country from which they were launched.

The Moon Agreement

The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,
provides that celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes, that they should not be contaminated, that the UN should always be made aware of any station on a non-Earth body, and that if resource mining on the Moon becomes feasible, an international regime must be established to govern how those resources are obtained and used. Notably, the U.S. is not a signatory to this treaty.

The Liability Convention

The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, provides that
Signatories take full liability for any damage caused by their space objects and agree to standard procedures for adjudicating damage claims.

The Registration Convention

The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space empowers the UN Secretary-General to maintain a register of all space objects.


During the 1980s and 1990s, UN General Assembly adopted resolutions addressing satellite television broadcasting, remote sensing of Earth, the use of nuclear power sources and international cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space. The International Telecommunicators Union regulates the operation of satellites in geostationary orbit, where most telecommunication satellites are located. “The ITU’s membership includes 193 Member States of the UN and over 700 Sector Members, representing various categories of players from the telecommunications industry.”

This article is for educational purposes only.