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What Is a Space Law?

The Outer Space Treaty forbade the United States from using space shuttles to deliver nuclear weapons to orbit, though these spacecraft did conduct military research missions.
Astronauts are envoys of Earth under the Outer Space Treaty.
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space works to establish functioning space laws.
As human uses of space have expanded, so has the body of space law.
Outer space.
Space law is used to regulate objects in space, like spacecraft.
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  • Written By: Matt Brady
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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Since 1958, space law has existed as a set of treaties and legislation—national and international—that lay out parameters for humanity's peaceful use and exploration of outer space. This area of the law was created as a direct response to the Russian's launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Over time, space law has spun off different committees and institutes, with help from the United Nations (UN), all of which help to clarify and expand upon legal space conduct. As humanity has come to rely more on satellites—as with cell phones, GPS, and TV—space law has likewise become more relevant and important.

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was christened a formal organization by UN resolution 1472 (XIV) in 1959. The resolution laid out its intent to diminish space rivalry between nations, and to promote peaceful use of space. Toward that effort, an initial committee of more than 20 nations was formed. COPUOS was quickly divided into two main subcommittees: the Legal Subcommittee, and the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee.

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Throughout its existence, COPUOS has ratified various treaties, including the Outer Space Treaty (resolution 2222) and the Rescue Agreement (resolution 2345). The Outer Space Treaty, created in 1966, is one of COPUOS's most successful efforts. It stipulates that outer space cannot be claimed as a territory by any nation. It also prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction in space, among other things. The Rescue Agreement basically stipulates that all measures possible will be taken to assist an astronaut in distress and return him to his country of launch origin. This agreement also includes a required cooperated effort to recover and return space objects that fall to earth.

The International Institute of Space Law (IISL), another key organization in space law, was formed in 1960 by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). The IISL cooperates with other space organizations, including COPUOS, toward understanding and navigating the evolution of space law.

Locked in a constant struggle to stay current with humanity's increasing dependency upon space-based technology, laws governing space grow more complicated with time. When the concept of space legislation was first formed, products such as cell phones, satellite TV, GPS devices and other space-dependent technology weren't yet developed. Moreover, the prospect of people one day taking private flights into space is closer than ever. The result is that laws governing space have more to address as they become more relevant, important and complicated than ever before. To meet the need for participants to help craft space legislation, universities worldwide have begun incorporating space law into curriculum; by 2008, students had begun to graduate with degrees and certificates in space law.

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