In the 1960s, the Soviets and NASA launched the first intrepid explorers into space. In 2001, multimillionaire Dennis Tito became the first “space tourist” to fund his own trip to the International Space Station. By 2004, SpaceShip One had completed the first private manned spaceflight. Now, filmmaker and explorer James Cameron and Google have announced they want to mine asteroids for water and precious metals. But before Cameron and company take their turn, they might have to allow another group of professionals to pave their “legal” pathway into space.
It may not have crossed your mind before, but space law does actually exist. While outer space has been deemed “global commons” for free and peaceful use, leave it to the lawyers to ask the questions about liability, safety and property ownership. In fact, James Cameron might already be breaking the law (or at the very least stepping on some legal toes) by laying claim to an asteroid that might not even be his to claim in the first place.
One particular problem that alarms both lawyers and scientists alike is the issue of space debris. From obsolete satellites that are still orbiting the Earth to lost spanners and wrenches used by NASA astronauts, flotsam and jetsam in space has the potential to wreak havoc from both a legal and operational standpoint. More private spacecraft flying to and from the Earth inevitably means more space debris.
Scientists at the Compass Summit last year address the issue of space junk, including how to deal with it, how to keep space clean, and the legal implications of an international agreement.
By the way, if you are an aspiring lawyer, but aren’t interested in an Earth-based legal practice, check out the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law program.