Scales of Justice Definition and Delineation
Jurisprudence and Jurisdiction
The Five UN Treaties
The Five UN Principles
Australian Space Law
US Space Law
Current Issues
Space Law Organisations
Space Law People
Space Law Education
Space Law Resources


Although the United Nations has debated the issue for 40 years, there is no agreed legal definition of the term 'Outer Space' used in the international treaties relating to operations in the volume (somewhere) above the sovereign airspace of member states. One might well ask how laws can be framed on an undefined subject.

Space scientists call the space in which Earth satellites orbit the near-space environment, reserving the term outer space for the interplanetary medium, whereas astronomers reserve the term outer or deep space for the intergalactic medium.

The atmosphere slowly decreases in density with height and so does not offer a guideline as to where space starts. However, air drag does not allow a vehicle to remain in orbit very long once it descends to below about 200 kilometres.

The United States of America awards astronaut status to anyone who has flown above 80 km in altitude.

Astronautical flight engineers define an "entry interface" at around 120 km as the height at which significant heating occurs to a re-entering spacecraft. Natural space objects (meteoroids) also start to ablate or burn up at around this altitude, creating the visible meteors we see in the night sky.

The World Air Sports Federation sets 100 km as the lower boundary of space, and this altitude has been used in recent prizes set in competitions for flying into space. Many groups have adopted this 'Karman Line', named after the aeronautical engineer Theodore Von Karman who predicted the height below which significant lateral thrust would be required to keep a craft flying level.

White Knight & Spaceship One White Knight carries Space Ship One in a private attempt to reach into space, defined in this case at an altitude of 100 km.

(photo courtesy of Scaled Composites)

Although many states refuse to legally put an upper limit to their airspace, most do not control their air traffic above 60,000 ft (referred to as Flight Level 600), or about 18 km.

Some states believe that the entire space "above" their country should belong to them. This makes absolutely no sense whatever, and shows a distinct lack of understanding of Earth's place in the Universe. It is in fact based upon the geocentric cosmology that was espoused until its overthrow by Copernicus. If this principle were to apply, some states might lay claim to a star that is 'directly above' their territory at one point in time, only to find that an hour later the same star 'belonged' to a neighbouring state, and so on. Some equatorial states use this reasoning to lay exclusive claim to a portion of the much prized geosynchronous orbit, and feel that they should derive revenue from allocation of 'slots' in this orbit to others. Fortunately they are not in a position to enforce these claims. Neither has the absence of a legal delineation of outer space led to any international lawsuits to this end, for it is virtually certain that even with a reluctance to put a lower limit to the term, only a small minority of states would place it above geosynchronous orbit, at an altitude of 36,000 km.

In pragmatic terms, the height at which sovereign airspace above a state becomes outer space is only the height to which:

  1. the state can defend the airspace below, and/or
  2. other states allow it to so claim.
Anything else is wishful thinking.

A good discussion on the boundary between air space and outer space has been written by Raymond Barrett.


There are essentially four regimes applicable to space law:

  1. State Law
    (eg the issuance of permits for rocket launches)
  2. Bilateral Treaties
    (eg establishing a tracking station in another country)
  3. Multilateral Treaties
    (eg the establishment of the European Space Agency)
  4. International Law
    (eg treaties made at and by the United Nations)

The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs has available a compilation of all legal agreements relating to space law made available to it by member states up to 1999. This contains lists of agreements in all of the four space law regimes listed above.

Because of the nature of space operations, international law treaties and agreements are of vital importance. The UN general assembly has set up a number of bodies to deal with space related matters.

UN Space Organisations
See acronyms list for explanation

The Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space reports directly to the United Nations General Assembly. COPUOS has two subcommittees, one legal and the other scientific and technical, which provide advice to it. The Office for Outer Space Affairs serves as the secretariat to COPUOS, and it controls the Program on Space Applications. It also holds the Register of Space Objects, arranges the UNISPACE conferences and overseas the SPace-based Information and solutions for Disaster management and Emergency Response.

Under international law there are now five treaties and five principles governing operations in space. These have been framed to try and ensure that space operations are to the benefit of all states, not just those who can afford to launch vehicles into space.

RKA logo NASA logo ESA logo UN logo


1967 OST

"Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies."

Short title: The Outer Space Treaty

Freedom of space for all. Not subject to national appropriation. International law applies. No military bases. No weapons of mass destruction. Astronauts as envoys - to be rendered assistance. States bear responsibility, ownership and liability for activities carried out under their jurisdiction. Peace, cooperation and mutual assistance. Opportunities for all. Inspections. Notifications of activities to UN.

This treaty contains elements of the following four treaties, which then reiterate and expand upon individual points declared here.

1968 ARRA

"Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space."

Short title: The Rescue and Return Agreement

Astronauts in distress to be given all possible assistance. Astronauts and space objects landing on foreign soil to be returned promptly to the launching state.

1972 LIAB

"Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects."

Short title: The Liability Treaty

States are responsible for any damage their space objects cause and must pay compensation to the damaged state.

1975 REG

"Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space."

Short title: The Registration Treaty

All objects launched into space must be notified, by the launching state(s), to the UN Register of Space Objects.

1979 MOON

"Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies."

Short title: The Moon Treaty

Strengthens and expands the Outer Space Treaty (1967) for space bodies.


  1. Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space

    Exploration and use of outer space should be for the benefit of all mankind. Outer space and any bodies in it are free for all and not subject to national appropriation. All activities should be peaceful. States bear international responsibility for national activities in space. States shall cooperate with each other in space. States retain control of their objects launched into space, and are liable for any damage such objects might cause. Astronauts shall be regarded as envoys of mankind. All possible assistance shall be rendered them in any emergency or accidental situation.

  2. Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting

    Access to direct broadcast technology should be available to all states. States should respect the rights and sensitivities of other states (including copyright) in such broadcasts.

  3. Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space

    Remote sensing activities to be carried out for the benefit of all states, and be used to protect the environment. Space capable states should make opportunities available to developing states for participation in this area. Data of any sense state should be made available to them.

  4. Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space

    In such operations individuals, populations and the biosphere should be protected against radiological hazards. There should be no significant contamination of outer space with radioactive material. Safety assessments shall be made available, and notifications made of nuclear powered vehicle re-entries into the Earth's atmosphere.

  5. Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States, taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries.

    Encouragement of international cooperation in space operations with an onus on space capable states to assist and encourage developing states.

UN treaties on Outer Space The full documentation on the UN treaties relating to outer space may be found at UN Treaties and Principles. An addendum covers the status of those treaties, with respect to which states have ratified them, as of January 2007.


Australia has enacted many bilateral space agreements with other countries for cooperative space projects. Such agreements have included the establishment of space tracking stations in Australia. In general Australia benefits from the data obtained, and also now has a policy of bilateral operation of such stations which gives Australian scientists, engineers, technicians and others job opportunities that they would otherwise have had to travel overseas to acquire. In many cases these agreements have provided benefits that are quite incommensurate with the small amount of funding that the Australian government has committed toward them.

However, it was not until 1998 that the Australian Commonwealth Government actually enacted specific space legislation which is termed the Australian Space Activities Act. This primarily relates to the regulation of space launches within Australia, and by Australians outside of Australia, and also the return of space objects to Australia. In essence, a space launch licence under this act makes the Australian Government liable under the UN Liability treaty for any damage caused by Australian space objects, and also allows Australia to claim the return of Australian space objects under the UN Rescue and Return treaty. Of course, this all comes at a considerable price to the applicant for such a licence.
Australian Crest Australian Space Activities Act 1998
Space Activities Amendment Bill 2002


In August 2006 the US adopted a new policy document on space, in which there is a priority mandate for space programs and activities, together with a committment to the peaceful use of space for the benefit of all nations and the rejection of claims to national sovereignty in space. However, the same policy includes the rights of the US to preserve its freedom in space, and to deny access to space to any enemies with hostile intent to US interests.

Current US space policy has also been focused on regulating private space flight. This followed from the success of the Scaled Composites Space Ship One in a suborbital flight exceeding 100 km in altitude, and a subsequent proposal to make such flights available to paying passengers. The legislation recognises the inherent dangers in such operations and recognises that properly informed passengers should be given the right to undertake such ventures, whilst ensuring the safety of (uninvolved) people and property on the ground, and appropriate legal protection for the space operator, as long as compliance with the regulations is established and maintained.
USA Flag USA National Space Policy 2006
Private Human Space Flight Regulations 2006



There are many organisations associated with space law. A selected few of these are listed below to illustrate the diversity of such organisations.

IISL logo
The IISL was established in 1960 and is an autonomous component of the International Astronautical Federation. It holds annual colloquia on space law. Its aims are to promote international cooperation in space law and to foster the development of space law and studies on the legal and sociological aspects of space activities.

A US National body and Office within NASA that provides both legislative and non-legislative interaction between the Space Agency and US governments. NASA OLIA

ECSL logo
The objective of the ECSL is to foster understanding of the legal framework relevant to space activities both in Europe and elsewhere. It is also prominent in fostering the teaching of space law. ECSL

ITU logo
An agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating communications both on the Earth, in space and between Earth and space. The ITU is based in Geneva. ITU

IASL logo
An institute of McGill University (Canada), the IASL specialises in space law education and publishes a journal on air and space law. IASL



Several universities outside Australia have departments dedicated to space law or air and space law. In Australia, a few universities offer a unit on space law within their law department, and even more include the topic as part of an international law unit.

ECSL school
The European Centre for Space Law hosts a summer school on space law and policy each year at a low cost which includes accomodation and some meals. This two week course is held at various sites around Europe.
ECSL Summer School

The International Astronautical Federation's International Institute of Space Law hosts the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot each year to encourage students in the practical application of space law. Students from schools all over the world compete in regional competitions, and then in the final competition which is held in conjunction with the IAF annual meeting at different sites around the world. The regional competition for the Asia Pacific region is held in Sydney, Australia.
Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition


COPUOS- COmmittee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space
ECSL- European Centre for Space Law
ESA- European Space Agency
IAF- International Astronautical Federation
IASL- Institute of Air and Space Law (McGill University)
ICG- International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems
IISL- International Institute of Space Law (IAF)
ITU- International Telecommunications Union
LS- Legal Subcommittee (of COPUOS)
NASA- (US) National Aeronautics and Space Agency
PSA- (UN) Program on Space Applications
SLU- Space Law Update (ePublication of UNOOSA)
SPIDER - (UN) SPace based Information and solutions for Disaster management and Emergency Response
STS- Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (of COPUOS)
UN- United Nations
UNGA- UN General Assembly
UNOOSA- UN Office for Outer Space Affairs





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