Somewhere, out there…



Montreal from space (credits: NASA)

On the fresh grass we lay on our backs and stared quietly at the mesmerising heavens above. The night sky was dark and clear, with not a cloud in sight.

“All those stars,” he said, “I feel so small and insignificant!”

I closed my eyes, and temporarily imagined the night sky with all its little, little colourful specks of light. But the awing sight with my open eyes could not begin to compare with my own imagination. “Yes, that’s outer space, the final frontier, as they say.”

“Isn’t that what you’re studying? Aren’t you trying to make laws so that we humans can go and conquer all these stars and planets out there?”

A common misconception. Outer space, and all those celestial bodies up there, all those planets, moons and meteors, cannot be owned. No State, no individual, no private enterprise can own any part of outer space. Even the planting of flags on the Moon is but a symbolic gesture, a photo op, but without any legal effect. This the entire world agrees. And those foolish enough to purchase lunar property online are just buying a piece of paper.

“Well, I’m not that smart to make any new laws!” I said, “In fact most space law has already been made by States and written in treaties and United Nations resolutions. Space law is in fact part of international law.”

“So what can you do up there then?”

Hubble image of Galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163 (credits: STSI / NASA)

“Oh, the possibilities are boundless, and we’ve just begun to realise the potentials that outer space can bring to humanity.” Since the launch of Sputnik, in 1959, we have discovered how important satellites are to transmitting signals for radio broadcast, for television, for telecommunications, and even for navigation. Plenty of satellites are being used to provide meteorological data, to aid disaster relief and search and rescue, for scientific research about the world’s oceans, about climate change, and also for discovering mysteries of the universe and where we came from. Many developing countries benefit from space technology and data, because they helps countries to better manage natural resources and the cultivation of crops, as well as to have a better perspective on the impact of development on the environment. Further, investing in space technology leads to innovation and breakthroughs that can be applied in medicine, industry and science.

But of course, space can be used for all the wrong reasons too. After all, the difference between a rocket and a missile is, as one famously said, is a matter of perspective. Whereas one can propel human beings into space for the purpose of exploration and scientific discovery, the other can rain down despicable destruction and suffering. Many of the international treaties and resolutions say that space must be used for ‘peaceful purposes’, but nobody knows, much less agree on,  what that means. Does that mean you cannot wage war in space? Does that mean you cannot place weapons in outer space? Is using satellites for reconnaissance or to help your forces on Earth to target an adversary contrary to ‘peaceful purposes’? To quote the words of a famous international space lawyer, the use of space for military purposes “hangs like on ominous shadow over present and future activities in outer space”.

International Space Station (credits: NASA)

A small, warm draft of wind blew across the empty field. “Look! You see that thing moving very fast,” I shouted excitedly, pointing to a white dot that crossed our field of vision at tremendous speed. “It’s the International Space Station!” At around 400km above the Earth, and as big as a football field!”

It’s the biggest manmade structure in space, and the result of years of planning and cooperation between many different countries and their respective space agencies. Canada has a vital role to play, and is the country which contributed the robotic arm that has helped to construct much of the space station.

“So there are astronauts living up there?”

“Yeah, six astronauts in total, living and working in sixteen different modules”.  Under space law, astronauts are also known as “envoys of mankind”, and they have a special status. In times of distress, all States must rescue the astronauts and return them to the home State. More recently, a number of space tourists have gone into space, and an issue, especially when liability is concerned, is whether normal civilians can be considered an “envoy of mankind”.

“So is there one law that applies on board the space station?”

“Actually, different laws apply,” I explained. Most of the space station is composed of modules owned by the US and Russia, but there are a number built by the Japanese and the Europeans.” You can imagine each module being an extension of the territory of the country that built and operates the module. And crossing from one module to another means the astronaut is subject to a different legal system. “It’s fascinating, because there’s a special code of conduct which governs activities on the space station which deals with anything from unruly behaviour to who is the authority in charge on board.”

The night sky, so vast, so dark, yet appears to be littered with stars.

“I look up sometimes, and imagine what is out there. Are those all stars and planets, or some are manmade objects. Do you know how much stuff is up there?”

“Well, some may say there’s too much up there!” At present are around 1,000 functioning space objects out there. But from when we first ventured into space till today, thousands, if not millions, of pieces of debris has accumulated and are now floating around the Earth. From spent rocket boosters to dead satellites, from tools that have drifted away during a space walk mission to tiny flecks of paint; all of that waste is left up there and nobody is responsible for cleaning it up.

space debris in low earth orbit (credits: NASA)

“And this is going to be a major environmental disaster waiting to happen, because chances are the debris will collide with one another and cause damage to vital satellite systems. It already happened in 2009, with the collision of a functioning communications satellite and a dead satellite. “Who is going to be responsible if something like that happens?” Though States have come up with guidelines to minimize the problem of space debris, the issue is very much a topical and of pressing concern.

“Fascinating… And I always imagined you were studying encounters with little green men…”

“Well, not quite. But now you know why space fascinates me so much and why I came all the way to Montreal just to be at the world’s foremost institute in the study of air and space law!”

The night sky was dark and clear, with not a cloud in sight. And somewhere out there, a vast universe with so much empty space and boundless opportunities opened before our very eyes.

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