outer space has rules for times of war and peace

The publication of the first images taken by the James Webb Telescope will inspire generations with the endless possibilities that outer space offers. It is clear that it is our responsibility to ensure that only peaceful, safe, sustainable, legal and legitimate uses of space are made for the benefit of humanity and future generations.

With this in mind, over the past six years McGill University in Canada and a number of collaborating institutions around the world have been involved in the development of the “McGill Handbook on International Law Applicable to the Military Uses of Outer Space”.

In August, the first volume of the manual was published. It contains 52 rules adopted by consensus of the expert group. The rules clarify the international law that applies to all space activities conducted in peacetime and in times of tension that pose challenges to peace.

Growth of space infrastructure

Since the beginning of the space age 65 years ago, great advances in space exploration have been observed which have benefited life on Earth. Research into space technology informs many of our modern conveniences.

Astronauts bring it back and scientists study mineral samples from asteroids. For decades, satellite technologies have been used for positioning, navigation and timing.

The US Global Positioning System – of which there are Chinese, European, Russian, Japanese and Indian variants – is the backbone of critical applications such as emergency search and rescue, precision agriculture for food production, air navigation, financial and banking security, and cyber time synchronization -network.

The growing dependence on space infrastructure makes modern economies increasingly vulnerable to the consequences of accidents as well as illegal and irresponsible acts affecting the exploration and use of space.

In 65 years, the space infrastructure has grown a lot (Image: 3Dsculptor/)

space on earth

In 2009, there was a communications failure in North America following an accidental collision between a former Soviet satellite and the Iridium communications satellite. It was an important reminder of the vulnerability of Earth operations to events in space.

Buoyed by geopolitical tensions, several governments have tested anti-satellite weapons, which leave a trail of space debris that will remain in orbit for decades, even centuries. Space debris poses a serious hazard to other objects in the work area, not to mention people and property on Earth, if they fall to Earth.

In September, China launched several ballistic missiles that reached 200 kilometers above sea level, potentially threatening satellites operating in low Earth orbit, the primary space used for crucial communications and remote sensing around the world. .

Space systems are not only vulnerable to missiles, but can be disrupted or destroyed by other means, such as lasers, spoofing, interference and cyber attacks. The human costs and consequences of conflict in space can be devastating without consideration.

assert the law

As countries and commercial space operators explore how to explore and use the moon and other celestial bodies for valuable resources, it must be understood that outer space is not an anarchic “Wild West.”

In fact, there is a clear set of basic legal principles that have applied to all space activities for many decades. Since the launch in 1957 of the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit (Sputnik I), there has been a clear consensus that outer space, planets and asteroids must be explored and used in accordance with international law, including the UN Charter.

These basic principles are elaborated in a series of UN space law treaties signed by virtually all countries exploring space.

Furthermore, especially with the increase in the number of commercial and private space operators, countries are adopting local space laws to regulate and monitor how all national space activities are conducted in accordance with international law.

junk space satellite
Image: Space debris in orbit around Earth (Image: )

independent and impartial

The United States and other governments have stated that “conflicts or confrontations in space are not inevitable”. In the current geopolitical environment, there is a need to formulate and clarify laws that prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings and in turn promote transparency, trust building and some cooperation in space.

An important set of international rules and legal principles apply to all space activities, including military space activities. However, these are sometimes subject to different interpretations, which create confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty.

The McGill Handbook is an independent and impartial effort that clarifies and confirms that existing laws are relevant and applicable to meet new activities and applications. These laws impose restrictions on irresponsible and dangerous actions and respond to new challenges in outer space.


The development of the manual involved more than 80 legal and technical experts. They affirmed, for example, that there is an absolute ban on the testing and use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in space, and that any harmful interference with the space assets of other states is illegal.

The experts also emphasized that the right to self-defense in the context of military space activities must take into account the unique legal and physical aspects of outer space.

1663152910 707 wild west outer space has rules for times

Over the centuries, different peoples around the world have tried to get in touch with space (Image: Anne Mathiasz/)

peace in space

The indigenous peoples of Canada and Australia, as well as many cultures and civilizations around the world, have long looked to the stars for guidance and inspiration. Governments and commercial operators in space must understand that space is a global commons where the activities of one country or company will have consequences for all others.

The publication of the McGill handbook is considered an important step in supporting the ongoing international effort. These internationally agreed laws should guide peaceful exploration and cooperation in space.

With information from Space and The Conversation (article reproduced under license)

Featured Image: Vadim Sadovski/

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