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In 1957 the Russian satellite Sputnik became the first object that humans placed into orbit, ushering in the Space Age. Since then, 3 countries have sent over 500 people into space and there are roughly 4,000 artificial satellites in orbit. The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union saw both sides spending billions of dollars on space programs as an extension of Cold War hostilities. Since then other groups, countries and even corporations have gained the ability to go to space. The Chinese have recently started a space program and corporations like Virgin Galactic are developing technologies to explore space. With all of these people interested in the research and exploitation of space, the international community has established several laws concerning the future peaceful use and exploration of outer space.
Immediately following World War 2, the world found itself in a daze. To prevent the slaughter that modern warfare was capable of, the United Nations was created as a sort of meetingplace for all countries. Issues could be discussed on the world stage and be resolved hopefully before it became necessary to go to war. With this sentiment the United Nations created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1958. It was hoped that a consensus could be made between all countries interested in space that would prevent conflict in the future. This committee is made of 69 members of the United Nations, has drafted 5 international treaties that have had varying levels of success.
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Between 1967 and 1979 the COPUOS drafted 5 international treaties. Some of them were widely signed by the international community and some were not. Here are some of the important aspects of the effects of these treaties:
No nukes in space. The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, is the backbone of international laws governing space. The Cold War was in its prime, and both sides were wary of bringing the conflict into space. This treaty states that it is illegal to place nuclear weapons or another weapon of mass destruction into space, meaning in orbit, on the Moon, or on any other celestial body. It is also illegal to place any military installation in space.
Nobody owns the Moon... maybe. There are a few clauses in the Outer Space Treaty that imply that the Moon and other celestial bodies cannot be claimed by any country. Specifically it says, "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." Now to us laymen, this might seem like a pretty straightforward sentence, but to the wiley bureaucrat, it can be interpreted several ways.
The Department of State's explanation of the Outer Space Treaty makes no mention of this clause. In 1979 the Moon Treaty attempted to solidify any misconceptions of the Outer Space Treaty regarding sovereignty, stating that "neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Moon not any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State." Now any country that supports the ideals that Article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty are based on would have no problem with the Moon Treaty. However, only 12 countries have ratified the Moon Treaty, and most of them are poor third world countries with no space program. In fact, no new treaties have been drafted for the past 30 years because of disagreement on this subject. So when countries to finally start moving into space, you can probably look forward to another colonial dash similar to European powers carving up Africa
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Too Many Satellites!
A geostationary orbit means that a satellite is orbiting the Earth at such a distance and speed so that it is always over the same spot. To stay in a geostationary orbit, a satellite must occupy a small ring of space above the equator. This means that there can only be so many geostationary satellites before that ring is full. Because of this scarcity, many countries have disputes over slots for their satellites in geostationary orbit. A separate United Nations institution called the International Telecommunications Union is tasked with resolving these disputes. This organization was created to regulate information and communication technology issues, and generally acts impartially when settling disputes. But eventually all the geostationary orbits will be taken. When that happens, it's likely that no amount of diplomacy on the part of the United Nations will be able to resolve disputes.
To complicate matters further, many countries that are on the equator have declared ownership of geostationary orbits. They claim that a satellite placed into geostationary orbit is violating their airspace. To them, it is an issue of their natural resources being stolen, the same as fishing rights. In 1976 several nations made the Bogota Declaration, stating that they could exercise national sovereignty over arcs of geostationary orbit that are directly over their territory. So far, there have been no incidents of countries interfering with satellites as a result of the Bogota Declaration, but it is a definite possibility for the future of space travel.
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Department of State: http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/treaties/space1.html
San Francisco State University: http://pweb.jps.net/~gangale/opsa/ir/WhoOwnsGeostationaryOrbit.htm
UN Office for Outer Space Affairs: http://www.oosa.unvienna.org/oosa/en/COPUOS/cop_overview.html
International Telecommunications Union: http://www.itu.int/en/history/Pages/default.aspx
Sputnik image: http://www.christopher-robbins.com/webactivism/blogimages/sputnik.jpg
Geostationary orbit diagram: http://www.daviddarling.info/images/geostationary_orbit.jpg
UN Logo: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/media/images/UN-LOGO%20copy.jpg