Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] The uncharted territory of Outer Space

From the perspective of an individual on Earth, outer space is a zone that occurs about 100 kilometres (60 miles) above the planet.
By IASToppers
August 27, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Outer Space
  • Declarations of the United Nations
  • Outer Space Treaty (1967)
  • Growth of the space industry
  • Challenges in fulfilling potential
  • Need for a space legislation
  • Conclusion

The uncharted territory of Outer Space

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Space has always fascinated humans. Outer space has been the arena of some of the most memorable technology demonstrations starting from Russia’s Sputnik and the U.S.’s Apollo 11. For India, Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan are symbols of national pride.

Outer Space:

  • Outer space is the expanse that exists beyond Earth and between celestial bodies.
  • Outer space is not empty but contains a low density of particles (predominantly a plasma of hydrogen and helium) as well as electromagnetic radiation, magnetic fields, neutrinos, dust, and cosmic rays.
  • The Karman line at an altitude of 100 km above sea level, is conventionally used as the start of outer space in space treaties and for aerospace records keeping.
  • The framework for international space law was established by the Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force on 10 October 1967.
  • Despite the drafting of UN resolutions for the peaceful uses of outer space, anti-satellite weapons have been tested in Earth orbit.

Declarations of the United Nations:

The United Nations General Assembly adopted five declarations and legal principles:

  • The Outer Space Treaty (1967): Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
  • The Rescue Agreement (1968): Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
  • The Liability Convention (1972): Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.
  • The Registration Convention (1976): Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
  • The Moon Agreement (1984): Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Outer Space Treaty (1967):

  • The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies forms the basis of international space law.
  • It prevents any claims of national sovereignty and permits all states to freely explore outer space.
  • It entered into force on 10 October 1967. India signed it in 1967.
  • As of June 2020, 110 countries are parties to treaty including the US, Russia, China, and India.

Key Prohibition:

  • Prohibits placing of nuclear weapons in space.
  • Limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only.
  • Establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.


  • It does not ban military activities within space, military space forces, or the weaponization of space, except the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.
  • It is mostly a non-armament treaty and offers insufficient regulations to newer space activities such as lunar and asteroid mining.

Growth of the space industry:

  • Technological changes have augmented the peaceful use of outer space.
  • The price tag for reaching low Earth orbit has declined by a factor of 20 in a decade.
  • This enhances human space travel possibilities by leveraging new commercial capabilities.
  • The $350 billion space market in 2020 will touch $2.7 trillion by 2050.
  • Space industries are likely to follow a path like the software industry with more involvement of unleashed innovations and competition among firms.

For Example:

  • Starlink, the constellation being constructed by SpaceX to provide global Internet access, plans more than 10,000 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit. It hopes to provide everyone, everywhere access to services such as distance education and telemedicine.
  • Amazon’s Project Kuiper received U.S. Federal Communications Commission approvals for more than 3,000 micro-satellites.
  • In a decade, 80,000 such satellites could be in space compared to less than 3,000 at present.
  • Space technology is being utilised to collect and analyse data for weather forecasting, global logistics, crop harvesting and disaster response.
  • Space could prove attractive for high-tech manufacturing and an exciting new platform is opening up for entrepreneurs.

Challenges in fulfilling potential:

1. Outdated space laws:

  • Space laws were a product of a golden age of two decades — the 1960s and 1970s.
  • As the outer space becomes democratised, commercialised and crowded, the multilateral framework for its governance is becoming outdated.
  • Space laws do not have a dispute settlement mechanism.
  • The laws are silent on collisions and debris and offer insufficient guidance on interference with others’ space assets.
  • These gaps heighten the potential for conflict in an era of congested orbits and breakneck technological change.

2. State-centric legislation:

  • The legal framework is state-centric, placing responsibility on states alone.
  • However, non-state entities are now in the race of commercial space exploration and utilisation.
  • Some states are providing frameworks for resource recovery through private enterprises as it is not expressly forbidden for non-state actors.
  • Ex: According to NASA, the asteroid named 16 Psyche is so rich in heavy metals that it is worth $10,000 quadrillion. So, there starts a race for mineral exploration among both state and non-state actors.
  • The lack of alignment of domestic and international frameworks will start a damaging free-for-all competition for celestial resources.

3. Misuse of strategic position:

  • Space is the highest ground and so holds an extreme strategic value.
  • Countries are investing in military space systems for communications, navigation to ensure operability of a range of capabilities.
  • Reliance on militaries on satellite systems means that space assets become potential targets.
  • The space arms race is difficult to curb since almost all space technologies have military applications.
  • Ex: Satellite constellations are commercial but governments can use their data to monitor military movements.

Need for space legislation:

  • Despite concerns about military activity in outer space for long, not much progress has been made in addressing them.
  • The current geopolitics doesn’t seem toaddress the concerns of a space arms race.
  • India has invested enormous resources in its space programme through the Indian Space Research Organisation.
  • India has proposed involvement of private players and created an autonomous body IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre) under the Department of Space for permitting and regulating activities.
  • The space environment that India faces requires to go beyond meeting technical milestones.
  • We need space legislation with coherence across technical, legal, commercial, diplomatic and defence goals.


As ambitious space missions are proliferating with advances in commercial space flight, there are concerns about possible ‘indiscriminate space mining’, ‘interplanetary contamination’ and ‘militarisation of outer space’. As space opens up our space vision needs broadening too. It is a high time for the world to frame new laws that address global governance, regulatory and arms control issues.

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