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Who does space belong to?

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) space has been defined as humanity's common heritage, but what does this mean in practice? Space Lawyer Jenni Tapio, who works for the European Space Agency (ESA) and studies space law at the University of Helsinki, sheds light on her own ethical views on space law.

What made you interested in space law?

Jenni Tapio: I have always been fascinated by international law and have already been interested in technological legal affairs as a student. Space law brings these interests together well, and the topic immediately brought me along. After a long career in technological legal affairs, I became interested in space law and worked in space affairs at a law firm when I was told that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment (MEAE) was about to start preparing national space legislation. I contacted the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and was able to participate in the working group's work.

The UN Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force in 1967, remains the most important instrument regulating space activities. In what context was the agreement concluded?

The Outer Space Treaty was born in an atmosphere coloured by faith in development and a positive attitude towards cooperation. A strong belief in the future prevailed at the end of the 1960s – it was believed that the rapidly developing technology would eventually lead to a transformation of society. This was paralleled with a strong commitment to international cooperation and open exchange of information, which were believed to avoid negative developments.

How extensively does the Outer Space Treaty regulate space activities?

The Outer Space Treaty is a principle-based treaty – at its inception, it was characterised by uncertainty as to the direction in which space activities would develop and the treaty was concluded in the light of the best information available at the time. The text of the treaty leaves plenty of room for interpretation and question marks, such as: the document identifies the whole of humanity as a beneficiary of space activities. But what this principle obliges space actors to do at the concrete level remains open to interpretation.

Over the decades, the space operating environment has changed throughout – how well does the treaty meet the requirements of the current operating environment?

Already at the time the agreement was concluded, it was known to prepare for the fact that space would eventually attract commercial operators as well. In anticipation of this, the Outer Space Treaty states that the ultimate responsibility for the activities of private actors would lie with the state to which they can be connected. Efforts have been made to implement this responsibility by requiring authorisation for space activities. In Finland, for example, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment grants and supervises Finnish space activities.

In the light of current legislation, is it possible to own celestial bodies — for example, do the flying flags in the Moon have any legal significance?

As a rule, there are no ownership rights in outer space – no private operator can own celestial bodies, and even states cannot, at least by setting up a flag, declare areas under their own jurisdiction.

What is the situation with the exploitable resources of outer space — to whom do they belong?

The mining, use and utilisation of space resources have been planned since the 1960s, but these plans have not yet become concrete. In the 1970s, the UN negotiated the so-called “Moon Treaty”, one of the aims of which is to agree on a model for utilising resources. The treaty challenges the concept of space as a so-called “new Wild West” that could be utilised on the “first come, first serve” principle. However, the Moon Treaty has not been widely ratified and the regulation is based on the principles of the Outer Space Treaty. The working group, which started its work in the Legal Subcommittee of COPUOS in 2021 and which Finland was also promoting, aims to find common views between the Member States on this theme.

What should space legislation take into account in order to be as fair as possible?

The primary aim of space legislation is not to regulate outer space itself – instead, it steers human activities in outer space. One of the objectives of responsible space activities should be to ensure that orbits remain usable across generations. In fact, I consider Finland's space legislation quite progressive; the act obliges space actors to also take into account the impacts of the activities on the atmosphere and the space environment – space actors should have a plan for avoiding space debris from the satellite.

So far, we know very little about space. How is this reflected in space legislation?

Space legislation concretises how humankind views the regulation of the unknown and the unknown in general. The drafting of space legislation inevitably starts from an anthropocentric, or human-centred, starting point; our way of structuring our environment has evolved under certain circumstances. How can this be applied to radically different circumstances? Space legislation challenges us to reflect on our views of how humankind views big questions about the legitimacy and principles of our activities in other environments.

Jenni Tapio Chief Specialist