International Security in Space: Legal implementations of space force and planetary Defense

Authored By:

Richa Gunawat(Research Intern)

(SLS, Pune)

Domain of space has developed to a great extent; even then its application in issues of worldwide security stays a moderately unexplored one. The general awareness with respect to the importance of outer space for our everyday lives and future is on a relatively low level. Most of the people are unaware that nowadays all the necessary services like, navigation, telecommunication or any other technology-related services are directly dependent on outer space.

Due to the huge usage of space, it is extremely essential to force a proper legal system that guarantees the standard of law and forestalls monopolization and national allocation of space. Exploration and usage of space should be directed and ought to ensure the interest and benefit of all countries. Initially, international space law was dominated by certain states and a few international organizations. This is where the five United Nations space treaties on outer space came into existence, which is discussed in this paper. Moreover, space exploration is usually intended to serve military purposes and thus there exists the fear of the possibility of militarization and weaponization of outer space. With increasing development in science and technology, business entities could also gain entry into outer space and this could lead to commercialization. This could further lead to modern difficulties and would require a strict legal regime that was never set up to cope with such difficulties. In a world of evolving threats, dependence has highlighted the vulnerability of space assets. This paper deals with the current legal framework governing outer space and determines whether or not the framework supports space weaponization and the use of force in space.

There are various objects in outer space like asteroids, which can enter the earth’s neighbourhood and can poses harm to mankind. Thus such objects are observed by the Planetary Defense Coordination office so that the harm could be mitigated.

This paper also emphasizes on how the planetary defence mechanism is coordinated by the Planetary Defense Coordination Office which is established by NASA.

Research Methodology:

The methodology of this research is based on a holistic approach. The study, examination, and review were based on various literature, legal and internet sources. To assess the legislation, definitions, and concept concerning outer space, I referred to literature from different authors, and various other relevant research paper available on the web.

The framework of this paper has been divided into different headings and sub-headings as below.

Space Force and International Space Law:

With the rise of space law in the twentieth century, sending military gear in space has been the subject of extreme discussions in lawful circles. The Outer Space Treaty explicitly forbids the placement of nuclear armament or some other kind of weapons of mass destruction in orbit around Earth. Similarly, the foundation of army installations or strongholds in space or on celestial bodies has been prohibited as announced.

Further, Space offers numerous advantages to the warfighter. Among them, worldwide access is transcendent. Since space is borderless, there are no regulating hindrances hindering access to any point within space.

Scientific interests have certainly been an important aspect of space exploration. However, military interests, not science, drove the development of the technology required to open up access to space. While world pioneers have embraced the peaceful use of space and states have dodged both the organization and utilization of space weapons, individuals from the global network, especially the space powers, have kept up developing and enthusiastic military presence in space. At present, military users of space are not restricted to the space powers. Advances in technology and the greater availability of launch services have made space accessible to an increasing number of nations. The discussion over the significance of "peaceful purposes" that seethed at the beginning of the space age and proceeds with today has, paying little heed to the first expectation of the drafters of the Outer Space Treaty, been overtaken by state practice.

Administration of space is done by a complex series of international treaties and agreements which have been set up for years.

The Five United Nations Treaties on Outer Space (1):

The Outer Space Treaty:

This treaty deals with the basic legal framework of international space law. It bars the parties of the treaty to place any mass destructive weapons in the earth’s orbit or installing them on the Moon or any other extraterrestrial body. It was signed in 1967 and today it is considered as the constitution of outer space. Moreover, it has been officially signed and ratified by 105 nations across the world.

Furthermore, this treaty lacks space police observation thus the guidelines cannot be practically enforced. So the company or an individual could easily ignore those guidelines. Suggestions or implications for not consenting could incorporate approvals, yet essentially an absence of authenticity and regard which is of significance in the global field.

The Treaty on Rescue and Return of Astronauts and Space Objects:

This was the second treaty on outer space signed in 1968 by the UN committee on peaceful usage of outer space. Also known as the Rescue Agreement. It set forth the rights and limitations of states concerning the rescue of a person in space by mandating any party to the agreement, that becomes aware that the personnel of a spacecraft are in distress must notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Rescue Agreement provides that any state that is a party to the agreement must give all conceivable help to safeguard the spacecraft who have landed within the territory of that state regardless of whether as a result of any mishap, distortion, emergency, or unintended landing. Furthermore, if there is any distortion happened in a zone that is past the domain of any country, at that point any state party that is in a situation to do so will, if fundamental, expand help with the pursuit and salvage activity.

Its arrangements expound on the rescue provisions provided in Article V of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Despite containing more explicitness and detail than Article V of the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement still experiences vagueness in drafting and its interpretation.

The Liability Convention:

It was established in 1972 and is a great example of the interaction of international policy, international relations, and economy. It characterizes liability for harm brought about by space objects. In any case, with increasingly more space exercises occurring every day, alongside the pattern towards commercialization, the use of the Convention faces extreme difficulties. Therefore, a genuine survey of the Convention is required after over 30 years of its reality. With modification, the Convention would offer clear rules for the authority to choose cases in an objective manner most appropriate to the improvement of space-related operations.

The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space:

It is also known as Registration convention. It was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974 and was enforced in 1976. It has been ratified by 69 states as of December 2018. This convention requires the parties to provide the United Nation with details about the orbit of each space object. The register for this is maintained by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and contains the name of state launching crafts in the orbit, its registration number, date and location of launch, orbital parameters, and specifications of the space objects.

The Moon Agreement:

This agreement was adopted by the general assembly in 1979 in resolution 34/68. However, it was entered into force in July 1984 when the fifth country Austria ratified the agreement. This agreement allows the party to use the moon and other celestial bodies exclusively for peaceful purposes and bars to damage or distort the environment in any manner. Furthermore, it requires that the United Nations are ought to be informed of the location and purpose of any station established on those outer space bodies. In addition to this, the agreement also provides that the moon and its resources are a common heritage to all mankind and international mechanism should be established to govern the exploration of those resources.

The Five Declarations and Legal Principles:

The Declaration of Legal Principle:

It was adopted by the General Assembly in 1963. This Declaration broadcasts the opportunity of all States to explore space and enounces that International Law and the Charter should govern to oversee the activities of States in space. It sets up standards concerning the obligation of States and global associations for activities in space, jurisdiction, and control of objects propelled, landing and return of space explorers and vehicles, and liability for injury or harm brought about by space vehicles.

The Broadcasting Principles:

Adopted in 1982, this principle governs the use of artificial satellites by the states for international direct television broadcasting. According to this principle, the state which intends to establish broadcasting service should notify receiving states and such services must be per the agreements between those states. Moreover, the utilization of communication facilities and Computers will undoubtedly change legitimate foundations inside individual countries, and it appears to be likely that it will affect universal legal relationships too. This type of broadcasting brings up issues of national sovereignty, social and cultural independence, and free progression of information.

The Remote Sensing Principles:

Adopted in 1986, UN Resolution applies to remote sensing activities to improve natural resources management, land use, and the protection of the environment. These principles provide a set of agreed and politically relevant yet non-non-binding principles to guide the activities of remote sensing by the United Nations Member States. This means that the activities are to be conducted for the benefit of all countries to balance the sovereignty of all states and people over natural resources and for the rights and interest of other states as well. It has achieved the ‘soft law’ status.

The Nuclear Power Sources (NSP) Principle:

Adopted in 2009, this principle governs the usage of nuclear power sources in outer space. Under the principle, Member States are required to inform the Secretary-General regarding safety assessments carried out before the launch of nuclear-powered space objects for dissemination to other States and the general public. In 2007, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) jointly agreed to draft safety guidelines for nuclear power source applications in outer space. This association further incorporated the ability of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee in the utilization of nuclear power sources with well-settled procedures of IAEA for developing security guidelines relating to the atomic wellbeing of earthly applications.

The Benefits Declaration:

Adopted in 1996, this declaration recognizes the importance of international cooperation in the exploration and usage of outer space for the benefit and interest of all states and in particular for developing nations. This Declaration settles the plan which has gotten known as "Space Benefits" in the UNCOPUOS Legal Subcommittee. It gives a definitive understanding of the cooperation principle in Article I of the Outer Space Treaty.

United States space force :

“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space. So important” as Donald Trump, U.S. President stated at a meeting of the National Space Council.

In June 2018, President Trump announced his intention to create a Space Force that would overlook the United States military’s activities off the planet. Being a party to major agreements and conventions for international space law, the United States is legally bound to adhere to the guidelines and provisions mentioned under legal documents of space law as well as the relevant international laws.

In addition to that, according to Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty, certain activities are forbidden in the outer spaces which are as follows:

· Placement of nuclear weapons;

· Placement of any weapon of mass destruction;

· Installation of weapons on celestial bodies;

· Stationing weapons in outer space;

· Establishment of military bases, fortification or other installations;

· Testing weapons in outer space;

· Conducting military activity on celestial bodies.

Planetary Defense and International Law: (2)

Planetary defence may be understood as the application of planetary science to address near earth’s object impact hazard. In other words, it is the term used to encompass all the capabilities required to detect the possibility and warn of the potential asteroid or comet impacts with Earth, and then either mitigate or prevent their possible effects. It involves:

1. Finding and tracking objects that pose harm to the atmosphere of the earth;

2. Characterizing above-mentioned objects to determine their orbit trajectory, shape, size, mass, composition, rotational dynamics, and other parameters, so that experts can determine the severity of the potential impact event, warn of its timing and potential effects, and determine the means to mitigate its impact; and

3. Planning and implementing measures to disrupt an object on an impact course with Earth, or to mitigate the effects of an impact that cannot be prevented. Mitigation measures that can be taken on Earth to protect lives and property include the evacuation of the impact area and movement of critical infrastructure.

Objects in outer space like comets and asteroids are considered as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), which revolves around the Sun like any other planet, but their orbits can bring them into Earth’s neighbourhood which can further harm the atmosphere of the earth. Moreover, the threats arising out of NEOs are of significant importance as asteroids do strike the planet all the time and impact by a large asteroid (depending on its composition, size and other relevant factors) could lead to devastation on earth. As of now, there is no such threat in existence but astronomers recognize that there are various hazardous objects in the outer space that they are unable to identify or detect. Further, humans are not yet prepared to deal with this kind of situation. Thus, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has established the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to manage its ongoing mission of planetary defence.

Few roles of Planetary Defence Coordination Office:

Planetary Defense Coordination Office plays a vital role in providing early discovery of potentially hazardous objects (PHOs) and also tracks and depict PHOs. Further, it issues warnings of the possible potential impacts thereof. In addition to that, it also studies technologies and strategies for alleviating PHO impacts and plays a lead role in coordinating United States government planning for response to an actual impact threat.

Although planetary defence is a subject matter of science and technology it also has legal aspects as well. The primary issues include the likelihood of possible strategy for endeavouring to modify the direction of an approaching asteroid is the immense intensity of a nuclear blast on, inside, or close to it. Without any doubt, if the warning time were short, this would be the only effective deflection technique. However, key provisions and widely adhered treaties stand in the way. These instruments were created with issues inconceivably unique to planetary defence as a main priority, they were intended to pre-empt an atomic weapons race in space and have demonstrated astoundingly effective in abandoning what could some way or another have formed into a hazardous and destabilizing exoatmospheric rivalry. The problem in accommodating these different sorts of goals evading an approaching asteroid and dispossessing extra military applications in space – may end up being a serious universal challenge.

Another issue emerges from the likelihood that an endeavour to occupy an asteroid may, tragically, end up being just somewhat successful. For instance, assume that the human intercession couldn't move the space rock adequately to make it miss Earth altogether but did serve to alter it in such a manner that it impacted country 1 instead of country 2. In addition to that, according to the outer space-related treaties, a nation has to bear absolute liability for any harm caused on the outside of the Earth by its exercises in space. Due to existing legal standards, a nation that in good faith practised their earnest attempts to save the planet from an impact may bring about an enormous monetary liability regarding all the damage endured by other nations.

The most encouraging course considered by the board for tending to both abovementioned legal issues is to practice the forces of the United Nations Security Council. Under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, the Security Council holds one of a kind of law-making power and has the position to override the arrangements of other treaties. Whenever incited by an emergency, the Security Council could consequently approve states to apply their earnest attempts for planetary defence, despite the arrangements of the arms control treaties and it could in like manner change the typical risk norms. It won't be simple to draft reasonable arrangements that would deftly address the perils and expenses without releasing an undesirable arms rivalry and without leaving the other country to fight for itself in light of a disaster.


International space law is one of the aspects of international law that will be at the focal point in a matter of a couple of decades. There are various new discoveries on day to day basis and undoubtedly this will bring major changes in the field of space law. There are and there will be various issues that eventually will have to be addressed and overcome with the passage of time.

Historically, military space operations have tended to be somewhat benign, thereby raising very few contentious legal issues. They have typically consisted of space control and space force enhancement missions. In future wars, it is unavoidable that war will move to space. In particular, dynamic and hostile defensive forms of space control, as well as space force application, are likely to become a prominent feature of conflict, especially as a growing number of states come to rely heavily on space assets to conduct terrestrial military operations. These realities will in-turn challenge the existing international legal architecture governing military operations in space, architecture originally intended for space exploration and commercial exploitation. International humanitarian law, which was designed exclusively for terrestrial warfare, will also be sorely tested. The resiliency of the applicable law in the face of the challenges on the immediate horizon has yet to be determined.

Also, irrespective of all the information available in the public domain, people are still unaware of the space-related provisions and laws. This situation can be easily overcome by creating awareness among the people regarding opportunities that exist outside our planet. Moreover, education is also important for teaching ourselves and future generations about ethical considerations that apply in outer space.


Online Sources:





· The Future of Planetary Defense and International Law, Harvard International Law Journal, David A. Koplow.

· Space Force and International Law, the Space Review in association with Space News, Babak Shakaouri Hassanabadi.

Research Paper:

· International Law and Military Operations in Space by Michael N. Schmitt.

· International Space Law: Legal Aspects of Exploiting Outer Space by Erzem Bohinc.

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