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Insights into Editorial: Outer Space Treaty: 50 years later



Insights into Editorial: Outer Space Treaty: 50 years later 



Space exploration is governed by a complex series of international treaties and agreements which have been in place for years. The first and probably most important of them celebrated its 50th anniversary on January 27, 2017 – The Outer Space Treaty.

  • This treaty, which was signed in 1967, was agreed through the United Nations, and today it remain as the “constitution” of outer space. It has been signed and made official, or ratified, by 105 countries across the world.


About the treaty:

The treaty was initially signed by the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union on January 27, 1967 and it came into effect from October 10, 1967. The treaty was initially called ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial bodies.

  • The Outer Space treaty is the constitution related to the international space law. According to the treaty, no country can place the weapons of mass destruction in the orbit of the Earth, Moon or any other celestial body. Moreover, the treaty also states that the Moon and other outer space celestial bodies shouldn’t be subjected to weapon testing or military manoeuvring.
  • The treaty further defines limits off moon and other celestial bodies, stating that no government can claim a celestial body as they are the common heritage to mankind. Exploration of outer space should be done in order to benefit all countries and the space is free for exploration by all countries. The country is liable and fully responsible for any damage in the space caused by their space object.


Treaty Terms:

The treaty forbids countries from deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in outer space. The term “weapons of mass destruction” is not defined, but it is commonly understood to include nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The treaty, however, does not prohibit the launching of ballistic missiles, which could be armed with WMD warheads, through space.


The treaty’s key arms control provisions are in Article IV. States-parties commit not to:

  • Place in orbit around the Earth or other celestial bodies any nuclear weapons or objects carrying WMD.
  • Install WMD on celestial bodies or station WMD in outer space in any other manner.
  • Establish military bases or installations, test “any type of weapons,” or conduct military exercises on the moon and other celestial bodies.


Other treaty provisions underscore that space is no single country’s domain and that all countries have a right to explore it. These provisions state that:

  • Space should be accessible to all countries and can be freely and scientifically investigated.
  • Space and celestial bodies are exempt from national claims of ownership.
  • Countries are to avoid contaminating and harming space or celestial bodies.
  • Countries exploring space are responsible and liable for any damage their activities may cause.
  • Space exploration is to be guided by “principles of cooperation and mutual assistance,” such as obliging astronauts to provide aid to one another if needed.


Amendment to the treaty:

Like other treaties, the Outer Space Treaty allows for amendments or member withdrawal. Article XV permits countries to propose amendments. An amendment can only enter into force if accepted by a majority of states-parties, and it will only be binding on those countries that approve the amendment. Article XVI states a country’s withdrawal from the treaty will take effect a year after it has submitted a written notification of its intentions to the depositary states-the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom.


Challenges so far:

Although there are many points to consider in the treaty, one of the most important is that outer space is to be used for “peaceful purposes” – weapons of mass destruction cannot be used in space. Another is that celestial territory (such as the moon or Mars), is not subject to “national appropriation” – in other words, no country can lay claim to them.

  • These points have been subject to challenges since the treaty came into play – the first example of such a challenge was the Bogota Declaration in 1976. A group of eight countries tried to claim ownership of a segment of an orbit that was in the space situated above their land – since if their borders projected into the heavens, any “stationary” satellite there would always be within their borders.
  • They claimed that this space did not fall under the definition of “outer space” by the Outer Space Treaty and was therefore a “natural resource”. This declaration was not seen as an attempt to undermine the treaty, but rather to say that orbits that go around the Earth’s equator, or in the direction of the Earth’s rotation, must be owned by the countries beneath. However, this was eventually dismissed by the international community.
  • In 2007 China was thought to have violated the treaty when it shot down one of it’s own weather satellites with a “ground-based medium-range ballistic missile”. This was seen as “aggressive” by Japan, but since the missiles did not come under the definition of “weapons of mass destruction”, it was found that it did not violate the treaty. There was, however, international outcry because of the debris cloud it caused within the orbit.


Challenges ahead:

The Treaty precludes at least some military activity in space. While the interpretation of this ranges from absolutely no military activities in space to allowing activities that are passive in nature, the result is that military activities are curtailed and limit space as a realm for employing national security activities. The environment of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union certainly motivated this ban on military activity at a time when fractional orbital bombardment and other orbital nuclear delivery systems were being considered.

  • However, the utilization of space has increased dramatically since the Cold War to the extent that everyday activities from telecommunications to financial markets to civilian navigation rely heavily on space infrastructure. Protecting these space assets is important given that their destruction would not only affect the military but could also effectively cripple economies.
  • The prime danger to these space assets are anti-satellite weapons. Although technically the treaty does not allow these types of weapons (considering the ban on military activities), the fact is that these have been under development at times in the past, and may be so today. In order to protect these assets, it may be necessary to claim zones around these space assets as national territory in order to protect them. However, such a notion would clearly fly in the face of the res communis doctrine of the Outer Space Treaty.
  • Furthermore, there is the additional danger of terrorism. One of the lessons of the 9/11 attacks on the United States is that terrorist activity has become increasingly sophisticated and it stands to reason that, eventually, terrorist groups may gain the technical ability to affect US space-based assets or even use space itself as a launching point for their attacks. To that end, it is necessary to develop the means to impede that activity but that would require more military activity in space, something the res communis doctrine of the Outer Space Treaty discourages and eventually looks to eliminate.


The treaty has worked well so far but challenges have increasingly started to crop up. So will it survive another 50 years?

The Outer Space Treaty, like all international law, is technically binding to those countries who sign up to it. But the obvious lack of “space police” means that it cannot be practically enforced. So, a country, individual or company could simply ignore it if they so wished. Implications for not complying could include sanctions, but mainly a lack of legitimacy and respect which is of importance in the international arena.

However, it is interesting that, over the 50 years of it’s existence, the treaty has never actually been violated. Although many practical challenges have been made – these have always been made with pars of the treaty in mind, rather than seeking to undermine it entirely.


Other concerns:

Despite its importance, we must recognise that the Outer Space Treaty does have some specific failings in the modern era – mainly since it is focused on countries only. Many private companies have exploited this and have offered to sell plots of land on celestial bodies such as the moon. Agents doing this justify their activity because the treaty says that territory is not subject to national appropriation – and therefore, this technically means that private companies or individuals could however make claims to celestial territory, since they are not countries.

In an attempt to tackle some of the modern-day shortfalls of the treaty, the US government passed the Space Act of 2015, which says that US citizens may engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources. Although this seems to undermine the space treaty’s ban on anyone owning celestial territory, the Space Act has a clause stating, in simple terms, that the US does not lay claim to, or own, any such thing. This conflict, that indicated that the US “may” be able to claim celestial territory, while not violating the treaty, remains an issue of key debate.



Despite these obvious legal loopholes and challenges, the treaty has long formed the basis for an international law with regards to outer space and it remains as the important backbone of outer-space governance. The intention that it embodied when it was first written, to create law in space, remains important – and whether any changes will be made in the future to reflect changing political and commercial circumstances is yet to be seen.