As humanity looks to the stars, so too do our lawyers

As humanity looks to the stars, so too do our lawyers

'Space lawyer'.

It sounds like a job out of The Jetsons, but it's real and they walk among us in Canberra.

And as Australia looks increasingly towards the stars, there are academics who are also contemplating what that could mean for our legal system.

ANU lawyer Dr Imogen Saunders.

ANU lawyer Dr Imogen Saunders. Credit:Karleen Minney

The country's new space agency will be based in Canberra for at least its first six months, and will be tasked with regulating Australia's civil space activities.


Dr Imogen Saunders is a lecturer with the Australian National University College of Law. She specialises in international law, which also includes laws governing outer space.

However she says the legislation is sorely out of date, and needs a drastic overhaul.

"All the law that we have that regulates space is law that's drafted 30 or 40 or even 50 years ago," Dr Saunders said.

"As new technology develops and as space becomes more and more accessible to private companies and to countries, we need space lawyers to help regulate what's going on."

Space is governed by a series of international agreements, of which the Outer Space Treaty is the most widely adopted.

Signed in 1967, it stops countries from claiming the moon and other celestial bodies, and prevents them from setting up military bases off-world.

The treaty also stops nations from putting nuclear weapons into orbit and says the exploration of space should be for the benefit of all mankind.

However, that treaty was negotiated at a time when space was out of the reach of most people.

That year, Australia became only the third country to launch a satellite when it shot WRESAT into the Earth's atmosphere from Woomera in South Australia.

Now, there are thousands of satellites circling the planet.

"We're dealing with a frontier that is becoming more and more accessible every day as technology develops," Dr Saunders said.

"That means international laws that regulate are 50 years old, and don't reflect the reality of how space may be used or even weaponised. And so it's vital that we develop new laws to regulate this new space."

Dr Saunders said the "biggest legal quagmire" is the fact private companies, not countries, are now leading the way in space exploration.

"When the Outer Space Treaty was drafted in 1967, the assumption was that the space race would be a race between countries and it would be national space agencies, like NASA, that would be exploring space," she said.

"The reality we're seeing today, however, is that all space activity is private space activity. Or all recent space activity has been private space activity. SpaceX is a private company, it's not under the control of the American government. And I think the laws as they're drafted don't, perhaps, reflect the reality of space exploration today."

Countries have even started passing their own laws about what their companies can and cannot do in space.

"In particular, the United States of America and Luxembourg have both passed national laws allowing their companies to own resources that they find or take back from space," Dr Saunders said.

Australian legislators have a long way to go to catch up, but Dr Saunders said work is under way to ensure our laws aren't left behind in this new space race.

"We do have legislation that has been under discussion. And there is the review of the Space Activities Act has been undertaken. However, there's still ongoing process, essentially," Dr Saunders said.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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