Hitting the Books: Why lawyers will be essential to tomorrow’s orbital economy

The skies above may soon be filled with constellations of commercial space stations occupying low-Earth orbit while human colonists colonize the moon with an eye on Mars, if today’s robber barons have anything to do with it. But unfortunately that won’t lead to the same free-roaming Wild West we saw in the 19th century, as tomorrow’s interplanetary settlers will bring their lawyers with them.

In her new book The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration, renowned astrophysicist and science editor Donald Goldsmith, and Martin Rees, British astronomer Royal, advocate sending robotic scouts — with their lack of vital necessities like life support systems — to nowhere before human explorers. But what happens after those synthetic astronauts discover an exploitable resource, or a rich idiot proclaims himself Emperor of Mars? In the following excerpt, Goldsmith and Rees discuss the challenges facing our emerging exoplanetary legal system.

a heavily pixelated space suit on a gray background and the book title above it

Harvard University Press

excerpt from The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees, published by Harvard University Press. © 2022 by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees.

Almost all legal systems have grown organically, the result of long experience stemming from changes in a society’s political, cultural, ecological and other circumstances. The early sprouts of space law deserve attention from those participating in the myriad activities planned for the coming decades, and perhaps from those who wish to envision how a Justinian code of space might emerge.

Those who travel in spacecraft, and to some extent those who will live on another celestial object, find themselves in similar situations to those aboard naval vessels, whose laws take precedence over precedents to deal with crime or extremely antisocial behavior. These laws typically assign a single officer or group of officers the power to judge and impose penalties, perhaps in anticipation of review in the event of a return to a higher court. This model seems likely to reappear in the first long-distance voyages within the solar system and in the first settlements on other celestial objects, before the usual structure of court systems for larger societies emerges.

However, as on Earth, most law is civil, not criminal. A far greater challenge than dealing with criminal acts is to formulate an appropriate civil law that applies to national or international disputes arising from space-based activities by nations, corporations or individuals. For half a century, a small cadre of stakeholders has been developing the new specialty of space law, some of which already has the potential for immediate application. What happens when a piece of space junk launched by a certain country or company falls on an unsuspecting group of people or their property? What happens when astronauts from different countries claim parts of the moon or an asteroid? And most important in its potential importance, if not its probability, who will speak for Earth if we should receive a message from another civilization?

Conferences on such topics have generated more interest than response. Human exploration of the moon brought related issues to wider attention and discussion. In the 1980s, the United Nations seemed the natural arena in which to debate them, and those discussions eventually led to the outcomes described in this chapter. Today, it is believed, almost nobody is aware of the documents produced by the United Nations, let alone plans to assist countries that follow the guidelines of those documents.

Our hopes of achieving a reasonable means of defining and limiting activities off our home planet will require broader agreements and a means of enforcing them. Non-lawyers reading existing and proposed agreements on the use of outer space should be aware that lawyers typically define words that refer to special situations as “art terms” and give them a different meaning than those that do a simple reading suggests.

For example, in normal discourse, the word “restoration” refers to the regaining of value of something that has been lost, such as an object. B. the loss of wages resulting from an injury. In more specific parlance, “resource reclamation” refers to the act of recycling material that would otherwise be wasted. However, in mining vocabulary, “salvage” has nothing to do with the loss of what was once possessed; Instead, it refers to the extraction of ore from the ground or seabed. The gentle nature of the word contrasts with the more accurate term “exploitation”, which often implies disapproval, although in legal matters it often has only a neutral meaning. For example, in 1982 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to set rules for much of the seabed that is outside a nation’s jurisdiction. 168 countries have now signed the convention, but not the United States. According to the ISA’s website, its Mining Code “refers to the body of comprehensive rules, regulations and procedures issued by the ISA to regulate the prospecting, exploration and exploitation of sea minerals in the International Seabed Area.” In mining circles, no one blinks at plans to exploit a particular location by mining its mineral resources. However, discussions of space law tend to eschew the term “exploitation” in favor of “restoration.”

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Russell Falcon

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