Space law: the final frontier

Joel Dennerley at the Mt Stromlo Observatory, photo by Stuart Hay.

Films and TV shows like Star Wars and Firefly make space seem like a pretty lawless place, with little regard for property, let alone, human life.

So the terrn 'space law' might seem a futurtstic concept to us, but with human beings becoming increasingly reliant on satellite technology and fostering grand dreams of interpllanetary travel, the concept is beooming more important than ever.

"Space law is really just the law which governs human activity in outer space," says fifth year ANU College of Law student Joel Dennerley, who is currently studying space law as part of his honours thesis.

"It started roughly in 1951 with the launch of Sputnik when the international community decided it wouid be very prudent and important to regulate spatial activities because they represent such ultra-hazardous endeavours."

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the United Nations Office, for Outer Space Affairs are the bodies whiich oversee the implementation of space law, with the former developing a set of international treaties to cover outer spaoe and celestial bodies, such as the moon and asteroids.

Among such international bodies, recent attention has turned to limiting the damage caused by orbital spaoe debris, commonly known as space junk. Relevant to this issue is the Australian Government's Satellite Utillisation Policy, which was launched at ANU in 2013.

Last year, ANU announced it would also be playing a role in cleaning up space junk as part of a $20 million Cooperative Research Centre based at Mount Stromlo Observatory.

Dennerelly says with technology developing at such a rapid pace and humankind becoming more and more dependent on space-based systems, there is a pressing need to regulate issues like the remediation of space junk.

Non-functioning satelllites and debris dogging up outer space, are a huge issue and there are more and more objects being sent into orbit, which are eventually becoming junk" he says.

"When these objects collide they create further debris fragments, which travel at incredibly fast orbital velocities.

"Things as small as a tiny fleck of paint one millimetre in diameter to large chunks half a metre in length pose real problems not only to the safety of astronauts, but also to functioning satellites."

What ANU and other organisations are doing with laser technology in moving debris and objects into remote orbits, or de-orbiting them safely, is a very important step to take if we are going to continue to utilise the benefits that come from activities in outer space.

"With plans by Bigelow Aerospace to establish hotels in outer space and Mars One sending its first cohort of settlers to Mars by 2026, Dennerley believes it is inevitable human kind will eventually become a twin planetary species."

Whether this is 100 or 150 years in the future, it could be space colonies, moon colonies or research colonies on Mars, this is all quite sci-fi at the moment but all too often science fiction becomes science fact.

For his honours thesis, Dennerley is looking closely at aspects of State liability in outer space, something the makers of Gravity might want to consider if they ever decide to make a sequel.

"It's a very interesting issue when damage is caused by space objects, usually through collisions, about who's liable and whether they can claim compensation," says Dennerley.

"You have to prove that the launching State is at fault for damage caused in outer space for the compensation to be owing and fault is a very ambiguous term in international law."

Dennerley says he hopes to share his passion for space and technology with others through a fiction book he is writing for young adults, set in the year 2099.

"I think there's so much potential in my generation and the one to come and, as such, I want to get people excited about science and technology like I get excited about science and technology."

This story was first published in ANU Reporter  Volume 46 No.3. by Katharine Pierce

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team