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Space Law in the 21st Century: Is International Safety at the Whims of Private Companies?

In the past few years the public has witnessed the largest changes to the space technology establishment since the Cold War. From the commercialisation of space flights by companies such as Boeing and Virgin Galactic to the innovative space technology seen in SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket and Starlink systems, the landscape of space technology and exploration is changing faster than ever before.


Once the exclusive domain of states, action in space is increasingly growing within the private sector, made clear by the successful completion of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission on August 2, 2020. This transfer from public to private domain is an exciting prospect for innovations in exploration and commercialisation, yet it remains a worry for international security.


Because these changes are happening so quickly, international laws which once governed activity in space, are quickly becoming outdated. The laws laid out by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) concerning global space governance and the accompanying five foundational space treaties are products of the Cold War, where few powers, mainly the United States and the Soviet Union, had access to space technologies. These treaties deal with an understanding of space which is limited to the 20th century, mostly dealing with issues related to militarisation and space colonisation, and have not been updated to address modern issues such as safety and cybersecurity risks. Additionally, private companies do not have the same levels of accountability and adherence to international norms as governments, making it difficult to ensure the responsible use of space technology.


Private sector involvement in space introduces new vulnerabilities in the form of potential cyberattacks on space infrastructure, in an attempt by foreign countries to access private data, disrupt satellite communications, interfere with global positioning systems, and compromise the safety of space missions. The existing space treaties do not comprehensively address the cybersecurity aspects of space activities, leaving a critical gap in international regulations.


Regulatory action to draft new guidelines in response to space-based cyberthreats will likely be slow. In order to properly prepare for these risks, a new approach which requires industry led and directed standards in cross-sector collaborations between private companies and government agencies to ensure new treaties are enacted needs to take place. To address these security risks, the United Nations must update and expand the existing space treaties and regulations to account for the changing landscape of space technology and exploration. The COPUOS, its member states, and members from the private sector should work together to draft new agreements that specifically address private sector involvement. These agreements should establish guidelines for responsible conduct, cybersecurity standards, and mechanisms for dispute resolution.


Furthermore, international cooperation and transparency should be promoted to ensure that space remains a peaceful and collaborative domain. States, private companies, and international organisations, in order to minimise security risks and maximise the benefits of space technology, must work together to develop new norms and practices for space activities to prevent the further threat of international threats.


On September 4, 2020, the Trump administration released Space Policy Directive 5 as cybersecurity policy suggestions within the space industry. While this directive does not mandate anything, it is a crucial step forward in the realm of international space law, as it establishes guidelines for satellites and related systems, outlining the best practices that companies should follow to protect space systems from cyberthreats, serving as a crucial step towards furthered international safety in a space-related domain.


In conclusion, the shift of space technology from governments to the private sectors is a remarkable development with potential for innovation and commercialisation. However, it poses significant security risks that necessitate a thorough review and update of international space laws and regulations. This process is essential to safeguard the future of space exploration, ensure international safety, and promote responsible and sustainable use of outer space.

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