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Major Companies Are Expanding Into Space. We Need a New Space Treaty

Who will govern corporations in space?

Major Companies Are Expanding Into Space. We Need a New Space Treaty
A 3D rendering of a spacecraft in orbit, with sunlight. 3DSculptor / iStock

Space tourism is about to go vogue as satellite traffic soars under the purview of space barons Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, the first two of whom just became astronauts. And the rising tide of space activity from private and public aerospace entities won't stop at low-Earth orbit. Before the decade is out, the moon will likely see more rovers, landers, and possibly more humans traipsing around the lunar surface. And we all know Mars is next.

However and among other things, this means a domain previously dominated by the U.S. and Russia will soon see more activity from China and a truckload of other countries and private firms, which means military and scientific missions galore. This isn't a redux of the first space race, which is when international space diplomats negotiated the Outer Space Treaty, a standing consensus that provides the only legal framework for the rule of law in space. And if we don't take steps to give it a 21st-century update, we might run into some serious issues, like pollution spreading beyond the Earth, spaceship collisions, or even interplanetary conflicts and war.

In short, the Biden administration needs to revisit this treaty with other space-worthy powers of the Earth and forge a new and better agreement, according to a recent Op-Ed from Astrophysicist Ramin Skibba, in Undark Magazine.

All space-worthy powers should sign a new treaty

However, there's still time: the initial Outer Space Treaty was written with vague language because its authors anticipated further complications down the line and scope of decades of international expansion into space. But here are a few unambiguous rules we should probably keep: Nukes are outlawed, along with other weapons of mass destruction, with intent to use or not. Yet missiles, lasers, and cyber weapons aren't included. You will be interested to know that private property is banned in space, and no nation or state may claim any volume of space or region of lunar territory as theirs. Extracting water and minerals, however, is not banned.

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There is also a Moon Agreement, which went into effect in 1984, and it expanded the rule of law to greater detail. Nations launching spacecraft into an orbit already occupied by another country's spacecraft must inform the latter. Additionally, lunar exploration can only move forward under the communal benefit of everyone (that means all humans, each according to their needs). Crucial to the forthcoming lunar base from NASA and partners, and probably China and Russia's is another rule stating that all explorers of the moon must be good custodians and take care of it, like any other environment (although, excluding NASA and other government agencies, resource-driven companies don't have a great track record in this department).

We can actually write a new social contract in space

Heartbreakingly, only 18 countries are currently signatories of this truly inspired treaty, not one of them space-worthy. So far, the Biden administration has emphasized "norms" instead of treaties when it comes to space exploration. These are more principles than rules, with no legally binding enforcement or oversight, but the administration is hopeful that this approach will grow as international collaborations in space take root, so to speak. But in the history of human expansion and resource-hunting on Earth, de facto policies rarely, if ever, worked for the common good of people or the environment.

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If we're going to evolve as a species, then the way we govern ourselves as a global community, too, must adapt to forge a new social contract in space that considers the needs of our species collectively. We should strive to improve the human condition, which means preserving the pristine, untouched environments of outer space, while also keeping the focus on scientific exploration and discovery for the common good, whether or not you come from money.

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