Wigs in space

Observations on law

If you think there are already too many laws and lawyers, think again. The long arm of the law is starting to reach into outer space. This 4 October marked the start of World Space Week, a chance to learn about the universe, and lawyers have much to discover. Space tourism is here, opportunities for mining galactic resources look ever more lucrative, and a new space race is on, all presenting a host of legal problems.

Take satellites. The increasing use of space to meet earthly needs such as telecommunications, weather forecasting and military operations may result in a "shortage of space in space", says Ram Jakhu, associate professor of law at McGill University. That would require traffic laws to manage all the satellites orbiting the planet. When space debris falls back to earth, causing property damage or personal injury, lawyers will want to know whom to sue. And with Japan considering a moon landing, and Russia and China planning a joint mission to Mars, international disputes are likely.

The Journal of Space Law - yes, there is one - has recently offered studies on interplanetary environmental pollution, the law of space tourism, and criminal jurisdiction on the International Space Station. The latest edition carries an article about asylum-seekers in outer space (wait till the Daily Mail gets wind of that).

Not that space law is new. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which applies international law to that domain, has been ratified by more than 100 countries. But the field is growing fast. Next month comes a UN workshop in Kiev, followed by a symposium on space tourism in the Netherlands. While some worry about the use of weapons in space, others fret about extraterrestrial rights (you can see the placards now - "Free the Saturn Five"). But the main reason space law is developing is private money.

"Private space activity now substantially exceeds government spending," says Glenn Reynolds, professor of law at the University of Tennessee. "People see the opportunity to make substantial sums of money in new fields like space tourism." Bigelow Aerospace recently announced plans to fly to a private space station up to 16 times a year by 2010. And who can blame it? Last month an Iranian-American businesswoman paid $20m to be blasted into space. Space resources extraction could be even more lucrative. The moon boasts a rare isotope ideal for nuclear energy, and the metal in the smallest near-earth asteroid is worth $5trn.

Although the Outer Space Treaty bans the national appropriation of the moon and other celestial bodies, it doesn't forbid private property rights. And technology is moving to the point where private ventures aimed at resource extraction from such bodies are feasible.

"National governments can regulate their own citizens, but there's little international law for accommodating or resolving conflicting claims, which will inevitably arise at some point," says Reynolds.

Even so, there will always be lawyers ready to boldly go where no lawyer has gone before.