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Star Laws: building capacity in the legal space


SPACE might be vast and empty, but Earth’s orbit isn’t. Already filled with defence, government and commercial satellites and spacecraft, the space surrounding our planet can now be reached by the public too.

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These are issues that raise complicated legal questions. The University of Adelaide in South Australia is launching a new, intensive post-graduate course titled Strategic Space Law to bring the legal profession up to speed.

Co-organiser Professor Melissa de Zwart from Adelaide Law School says the course will be attended by military, industry and government representatives, as well as Masters of Law students.

“The commercialisation of space activity is a pressing issue. As new players like Elon Musk come in to the space technology field, that’s a really exciting opportunity because of the new ideas and new technologies, but it creates problems too, because people have to learn how to operate in that zone,” says Professor de Zwart.

“Another issue is that now it’s easier for people to launch payload in to space, such as Cubesats. Space is becoming more crowded and we have to start regulating it because there’s going to be more space junk and less orbit to operate in.”

“Space is becoming more crowded and we have to start regulating it because there’s going to be more space junk and less orbit to operate in.”

The one-week course was co-developed with McGill University’s Centre for Research in Air and Space Law in Montreal and will feature 23 lectures on core subjects in space law, as well as hands-on workshops and a visit to South Australia’s most famous space science region, Woomera.

Core to the course is the idea that legal issues surrounding jurisdictional authority, space weapon use and space tourism, rather than being taken passively, need to be anticipated by the legal field due to the fast moving nature of the space industry.

Space crosses national boundaries.  With the European Space Agency, NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency and other state actors in orbit and collaborating on projects such as the International Space Station (ISS), there are plenty of cross-jurisdictional issues that have to be dealt with.

For example, what happens if a European astronaut injured a Russian cosmonaut in space?

“It depends,” says Professor de Zwart, “There’s a number of international treaties. A payload belonging to a country is essentially treated as an external jurisdiction, so whatever happens there is subject to the law of that country. It gets a bit more technical when you’re talking about something like the ISS which has modules owned by a number of different countries.”

Many countries are fielding anti-satellite weapons as well, and although officially these have never been used in an aggressive manner, the possibility exists.

Co-organiser Associate Professor Dale Stephens from the Adelaide Law School says that the course will examine such issues in detail.

“Military uses of space are expanding, especially in the context of weapons capability and satellite use. This is a largely unregulated area and there exist real conceptual and practical questions about how laws designed to regulate military operations on earth can apply in space,” Associate Professor Stephens says.

“We are now working with a consortium of universities in Canada and the US on the legal ramifications of space. Our work will contribute towards the drafting of a report on space law developments, which we hope will be presented as an annual update to the United Nations General Assembly,” he says.

Strategic Space Law will be run at the University of Adelaide from 29 June – 3 July. More information can be found at the Adelaide Law School’s website.

Professor de Zwart and Associate Professor Stephens already presented the course in Montreal late last year, and several of McGill University’s experts will travel to South Australia for this incarnation.

“That was well attended and we got good feedback on it. That’s why we’re running it here, and potentially we’ll run it somewhere else next year. Certainly part of the reason we’re running the course is to build capacity in the legal profession.

“Space law is a small field but it’s fair to say the people involved are very interested in it. Adelaide will be hosting the International Astronautical Congress soon, and Adelaide lawyer Michael Davis has been very involved in that happening,” de Zwart says.

For more on The Lead about Australian and Canadian cooperation in space, read “Satellite system brings remote Canada within reach”.

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