Anna Sullivan


Arianne Perez

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The United Nations has been involved in space activities since the very beginning of the space age. Since the first man-made satellite orbited the Earth in 1957, the United Nations has been committed to ensuring that space is used for peaceful purposes. This launch, as part of the International Geophysical Year, marked the dawn of the space age, the first use of satellite technology for the advancement of science and the beginning of human efforts to ensure the peaceful use of outer space. This was followed in the 1960s by a rapid expansion in space exploration, or the so-called "space race" era. The work of COPUOS has been assisted by the two subcommittees, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee. The complex issues that have arisen along with the development of space technology are the main concern of the two COPUOS Subcommittees, which first met in Geneva in 1962 and have since met regularly every year. The countries that are members of COPUOS are called States and, since 1959, their number has grown from 24 to 87 members, making COPUOS one of the most important committees of the United Nations. In addition to States, a number of international organizations, including intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, have observer status at COPUOS and its subcommittees. UNOOSA provides secretariat services to COPUOS and its two Subcommittees, which continue to serve as platforms for maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes.

While this field of law is still very new, complicated and undefined, it is in an era of rapid change and development. Space resources are infinite and if commercial space transport becomes widely available, with lower launch costs, all countries will be able to directly reap the benefits of space resources. In that situation, it seems likely that it will be much easier to take a decision on the issue of commercial development and human settlements in outer space. High costs are not the only factor preventing the economic exploitation of space: it is argued that space should be regarded as a pristine environment worthy of protection and conservation, and that the legal regime of space should further protect it from being used as a resource for the needs of the Earth. The debate also focuses on whether nations should be allowed to claim space or whether their legal definition should be changed to allow private ownership of space.

COPUOS is the force behind five treaties and five principles that govern much of space exploration. The fundamental treaty is the "Outer Space Treaty". This treaty focuses on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies. It was ratified in 1967, largely on the basis of a set of legal principles accepted by the General Assembly in 1962. Its main points are that the pace is free for all nations to explore, and that sovereign claims cannot be made. Space activities must benefit all nations and human beings. Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are not permitted in Earth's orbit, on celestial bodies or elsewhere in outer space. Finally, each country is responsible for damage caused by its space objects. Individual nations are also responsible for all governmental and non-governmental activities carried out by their citizens. These states must also "avoid harmful pollution" due to space activities. (COPUOS, Outer Space Treaty).

To support the Outer Space Treaty and peaceful space exploration, four other treaties were established in the 1960s and 1970s. These treaties are: The "Rescue Agreement" that was formed in 1968 to assist astronauts when faced with an emergency. States are told that they "shall immediately take all feasible measures to rescue them and provide them with all necessary assistance". The "Liability Convention" (1972) provides that if a space object causes damage or loss of human life, the launching State will be fully responsible and will have to pay compensation for the damage caused. The "Registration Convention" (1975) was developed to help nations track all objects launched into outer space. This United Nations register is important for the purposes of this report.

In addition to the international treaties that have been negotiated at the United Nations, the nations participating in the International Space Station have signed the 1998 Agreement between the Governments of Canada, the member States of the European Space Agency, Japan, the Russian Federation and the United States on cooperation on the Civilian International Space Station. This agreement provides, inter alia, that NASA is the lead agency in coordinating member States' contributions and activities to the space station and that each country has jurisdiction over its own modules. The agreement also provides for the protection of intellectual property and procedures for criminal prosecution. This agreement can serve as a model for future international cooperation agreements on facilities on the Moon and Mars, where the first colonies outside the world and the first scientific/industrial bases are very likely to be established.

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