Space law

In a nut-shuttle

Space law (1)Yes, space law is real. And fortunately (or unfortunately?), it doesn’t involve the defense against a potential alien invasion. Space law is the body of law that governs space activity; it encompasses international and domestic agreements and treaties pertaining to areas such as space exploration, liability for damage and environmental preservation. Elements of space law also overlap with other fields of law, like criminal, commercial, insurance and environmental law.

There are five space-related treaties that the US is party to – often referred to as the five UN treaties on outer space. The treaties are comprised of the outer space treaty, the liability convention, the registration convention, the return and rescue agreement, and the moon agreement. These five treaties deal with issues such as the non-appropriation of outer space and the prevention of harmful interference with space activities and resources.

Space law attorneys advise clients on legal matters such as the financing of space assets and the launching of satellites. They also provide guidance on the regulation of satellites and associated frequencies, and monitor space law legislation and regulation.

Space law is not widely available on legal courses, as space legislation is only just starting to take shape. This might make it hard for law students and juniors to get the experience in the area that would help them bag a permanent job in the area. However, space and satellite law often intersects with telecommunications law, which is much more available for those starting out. Aspiring space law attorneys may therefore wish to try their hand at telecom work first.

“The bread and butter of space law is the licensing and compliance of satellites. We represent satellite space station operators at the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to help them get their licenses. There are several rules the licenses have to comply with, such as spectrum use or spectrum sharing.” – Bill Wiltshire, Managing Partner, Harris Wiltshire & Grannis


What lawyers do

  • Harris Wiltshire & Grannis represents satellite and drone companies such as SpaceX (founded by Elon Musk), which provides broadband services to users around the globe via satellite technology. A lawyer working within the practice at HWG detailed what their day-to-day looks like: “I do a mixture of terrestrial spectrum and commercial space policy,” which may initially sound a bit Star Trek, but in reality “it mainly involves being a point of contact for satellite industry clients and drafting comments for submission to the FCC [Federal Communications Commission].”
  • HWG managing partner Bill Wiltshire explains the types of challenges space law attorneys are facing in today's ever-changing world: “Lawyers are having to think through a lot of issues the world is only just starting to see.” He adds that “the various issues involved include the potential for satellites to collide in space. How can a regulatory regime manage such issues?”


Realities of the job

Space law is literally rocket science. Well, kind of. Due to the technical nature of space law matters, attorneys will find themselves working with relevant experts on various issues.

Lawyers in the field can expect to:

  • Advise on the financing of satellites; act as counsel to lenders and satellite owners in relation with project financing or construction.
  • Advise cable and telecommunications clients on legal matters, such as space insurance and security interests in telecommunications equipment.
  • Work on various commercial contracts for satellites, satellite constellations, launch services and ground stations. These can include the likes of space and satellite procurement and services contracts.
  • Support clients in multijurisdictional insolvency and restructuring proceedings.
  • Work on litigation and arbitration matters, such as disputes over space and satellite assets.
  • Provide legal advice on insurance policies and the regulation of satellites and associated frequencies.
  • Work on IP matters, which can involve assisting clients with patents, trade secrets, copyrights and trademarks.


Current issues

June 2023

  • The shaping of current outer space legislation was done so with space understood as something explored exclusively by government institutions. Now that there are new private space companies, both space exploration and space tourism require further regulation in both the private and public sectors of legislation. 

  • On a broader note, there are questions of morality and responsibility around the potential for space mining too – not just questions of ‘who owns what?’, but also those such as ‘should we own this?’ Perhaps budding space lawyers should also take a philosophy class. 

  • Space tourism is an increasing area of business. Though space tourism company Space Adventures has sent fewer than a dozen private citizens into space, there are huge plans to expand this new version of ‘getting away from it all.’ In April 2023, the Space Tourism Conference was held in Los Angeles, discussing the future of business opportunities in space tourism. 

  • Investment bank Morgan Stanley suggests that the space industry as a whole will turn in around $1 trillion in revenue by 2040. Once a mere vision, now a tangible reality for the rich and famous, space tourism is becoming increasingly lucrative as a new business phenomenon. 

  • At the tail-end of 2021, NASA signed deals with three US companies to build new space stations under the Space Act Agreement. The main premise of the agreement is to aid the commercialization and economic growth of space under US influence – concentrating on low-earth orbit destinations. The deal was valued at around $415.6 million and was awarded to Blue Origin, Nanoracks and NGSCDV. 

  • Commercial spaceflight is still far from becoming a reality. In November 2022, a judge ruled that Richard Branson must face a class action lawsuit from shareholders, alleging that he purposefully hid problems with the Virgin Galactic spaceship program and defrauded people into overpaying for shares. As of November 2022, the shares have dropped 90% from their peak in February 2021. The judge added that shareholders could sue for more than $301 million worth of stock that was sold after Branson’s 2021 Unity flight, which he had claimed was “flawless.” 

  • In a further blow to Branson, Virgin Orbit, Branson’s rocket company, announced in April 2023 that it would be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US after being unable to find new funding. The company had tried to send a satellite into orbit from the UK but failed due to a dislodged fuel filter. Virgin Orbit will now focus on securing a new buyer, using $31.6m from Virgin Investments. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing will allow the company to continue operations and deal with financial issues while offering protection against any creditors owed money. 

  • Entrepreneurs are increasingly working on projects to build space colonies and entire cities. Although the aforementioned Outer Space Treaty bans countries from appropriating the moon and other celestial bodies, the treaty doesn’t mention private citizens. 

  • Will space be militarized? Historically, the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967 decrees that the moon and other celestial bodies must only be utilized for peaceful purposes. As of March 2023, 135 countries were either party to or had signed the treaty. At the 2019 NATO summit, space was declared an “operational domain, and NATO made clear that it has no intentions of weaponizing space. Further, February 2023 saw NATO announce its plans introduce the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS). The initiative is intended to improve decision-making by enhancing space intelligence and surveillance. 

  • In 2020, several nations including Australia, Canada, Japan, the UAE and the UK signed the Artemis Accords, the agreement that underpins NASA’s Artemis Program to launch two astronauts to the moon by 2024 (including what will be the first woman to walk on the moon). 

  • President Biden has stated his support for the United States Space Force, which protects US assets in space, such as communication and surveillance satellites. 

  • In March 2023, Biden released a $842 billion budget request for the Defense Department for the year 2024 to boost the US security in space and deter potential threats to its nation. $33.3 billion has been set aside for “vital space capabilities,” such as the purchase of satellites and launch services, research development and testing, personnel costs and active-duty guardians and general maintenance. 

  • In August 2019, Anne McClain, a NASA astronaut, was accused of breaching the law in space while aboard the International Space Station. Allegedly, McClain illegally accessed her ex-partner’s bank account while on board the international space station. This is the first allegation of a crime taking place in space, raising questions as to who will govern the realms of space when the exploration and habitation of space becomes more commonplace. Making things easier for now, the ex-partner in question was charged in 2020 with fabricating the alleged space crime. 

  • In November 2021 the Russian military released a missile into space named Kosmos 2552. It was proposed that the intentions of this missile was to track other missile activity near Russia and any potential threats to its territory. However, whilst in orbit Kosmos 2552 collided with an older Russian satellite, the collision caused an explosion and thus was surrounded by floating chunks of debris in space – causing further dangers to space assets that will continue floating through space for countless years to come. 

  • With the continuous developments in technology - cybersecurity is an increasing threat to satellite networks today. Satellites carry and transmit sensitive data to and from earth making them potential targets for hackers or military forces. In March 2022 it was proposed by American government officials that Russian military hackers committed a cybersecurity attack on a European satellite; the attack had consequences on the Ukrainian military communications right at the start of the war imposed by Russia. As the war progressed, Biden called for US corporations to tighten up on satellite security in preparation for potential cyberattacks by the Russian forces. 

  • At the tail end of 2021 – the UN panel put forward a new working group, the group has been put in place to work against an arms race in space and any threats towards space and its assets. The notion of the working group was initiated by the UK but was backed by around 40 other countries, including the US.