Archives For international laws

Kyle Munkittrick of Science Not Fiction decided that it could be a fun exercise to create a draft of rules for how we should deal with alien species, especially if we get to make first contact in person, rather than via radio or laser transmissions. Sure, it’s just a speculative exercise and as someone who had to sift through legalese enough to get a sense of what documents like that really look like, I can say that it has a long ways to go until we actually start thinking about it seriously. But it is an idea that we may want to ponder. Right now, if an alien spacecraft slides into orbit around Earth, there’s no real protocol for how we will deal with the craft or whatever living creatures might be on board, who will contact it, and how. And when we figure that out, we’ll need to get some sort of team to introduce the aliens to the rest of the world, hence Munkittrick suggests the following…

Article I. The People of Earth shall, in a manner prescribed by national and international law, form a delegation of representatives appropriate to the Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This delegation will be entrusted with ensuring adherence to the values and articles within this document.

This, along with several more articles specifying that we won’t treat extraterrestrial living things as lab rats, or get excited about playing Operation with alien innards, sound just fine to me. I also like the clause which does away with all these rules in the event that otherworldly visitors declare that we should take them to our leader to sign the planet’s capitulation rather than to introduce themselves. But what if the aliens’ choices violate our own principles? What if the aliens are being unreasonable or belligerent because on their world, they’re high level diplomats and that’s how their high level diplomats are supposed to act? What if the extraterrestrials we want to treat with respect befitting a foreign emissary are really nobodies who aren’t even going to be missed on their home worlds? In other words, what if we’re dealing with a scenario closer to District 9 rather than the modern day version of Star Trek? Again, these are issues we need to consider before talking to any aliens. In the same vein, compliance with another article Munkittrick emphasizes may be extremely tricky…

Article II. The People of Earth shall make no act of aggression, pre-emptive or otherwise, towards an Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

As nice it would be to know exactly what to do not to tick off an alien visitor, we have trouble being polite across cultures in our own species. You never know what might set an extraterrestrial off. It might be horrified when a human sneezes because that’s how duels are declared on its world, or the most obscene insults are voiced: with a spread of potential pathogens. (Assuming, of course, that its species is aware of germ theory). And on the other hand, it might find sneezing to be a romantic gesture and do something we consider hostile in reply but is actually a flattering gesture on its planet. I understand that acts of aggression probably means firing our kinetic impactors and nuclear warheads at an alien delegation. However, countless wars started over simple misunderstandings and cultural miscommunications which were interpreted as hostile actions while several heated exchanges wound down after enough missiles were pointed towards each other. Lucky for us, we’re very unlikely to even talk to, much less infuriate any aliens, so the only diplomacy with which we really have to concern ourselves for the foreseeable future is the Earthly kind…


A few days ago, I growled at the political blog TruthDig for their cheap shot at space tourism and noted that keeping space out of reach of dreamers with big goals and space-bound ambitions just because they create companies to build new generations of spacecraft, was wildly irrational. Likewise, they decided to avoid doing even the slightest bit of research on the technical concepts involved with the inflatable space structures being planned for future space hotels before questioning whether the concept with just a lot of hot air, and going into equating whatever plans today’s space tourism startups have with BP’s spill, Toyota’s accelerators, and toxic materials found in fast food meals. In other words, the post was pretty much what you’d expect from the typical political blog. But in the discussion thread about my take on TruthDig there was a very interesting question to consider about the future of space tourism, a question that I thought needed to be a post in its own right…

With the dire oil spill sending oil slicks across the Gulf Coast while BP and its contractors blame each other’s shoddy work, trying their best to undo the massive public relations damage with tactics which we could easily attribute to one of Potemkin’s descendants being hired as a PR consultant, people are wondering about how well companies are meeting environmental standards and what other disasters could be just waiting to hit us thanks to lax regulation and shortcuts in the name of saving a few bucks. It’s very distressing question which we’re often afraid to ask until disaster strikes because we know that a truthful answer is probably not going to help us sleep at night any better. So in the spirit of asking pressing question tied to current events, I wanted to tackle the following question from Pierce Butler, who forwarded the TruthDig story to me in hopes of getting more technical details on inflatable space hotels, and the regulatory concerns they could cause…

… if the Motel 6 magnate decides to save some bucks by tossing trash out the airlock, who’s going to make him stop producing that (potentially) deadly jetsam?

Now, environmental laws don’t seem to apply to outer space because pretty much everything there is floating in a vacuum where nothing actually lives, and gets bathed by radiation and periods of intense heat and nearly as intense cold. However, letting loose with a volley of junk into orbit could potentially knock out satellites we need for GPS, communications, TV, military intelligence, and weather forecasting. And as of today, there’s no law that would forbid the practice and no regulatory body which will have the power to do anything to punish a space hotel operator who does it. Packing up junk and sending it back to Earth in a vessel would be costly, so the temptation to just chuck it overboard would be there. And since satellites and space hotels won’t generally share orbits as not to collide into one another at about 17,000 km/h, the chances of actually hitting a satellite would be rather small. But as the junk’s orbit decays, or the momentum of the ejection sends into into another orbital path, it will eventually hit something important. Keeping any future space tourism company from simply shooting debris into orbit would take an international effort and a legal framework that will make sure that the applicable fines are paid, and that those fines aren’t just a slap on the wrist.

We need to keep in mind that we don’t really have a way to clean up space junk and the damage it may cause can only be mitigated rather than prevented. If space hotel operators decided to pollute the space around our head with refuse, they have to be held accountable. The worst case scenario is that their own junk will hit the very vehicles delivering paying clients to their orbital hotels, destroying the entire industry in the process while setting commercial travel back by decades. Space travel is extremely risky already and we certainly wouldn’t want to make it any more so. Rather than planning to eject junk into orbit, it should be ready to ferry it back to Earth by the SSTO craft being planned to make space hotels a viable and relatively affordable venture.

[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren ]


Space tourism might just be making its baby steps as an industry, but as space travel will get cheaper and it will take more than just a quick flight above the Karman Line to draw in people looking for an out of this world experience, some scientists are thinking about how to preserve potential space tourist hot spots. The first place they have in mind? Apollo 11′s landing site, the spot where humans took their first step on alien soil. To them, it’s a place that has to be protected lest we start seeing online auctions for genuine pieces of the lunar lander or equipment for scientific experiments brought back by profit-minded tourists by the end of the century.

dark side of the moon

Selling artifacts with significant historical value is big business which is ripe with potential for fraud because plenty of people want to own a piece of the past and are willing to pay a lot of money for it. The temptation for multi-million dollar paydays might be too much to resist for someone taking a trip to the Sea of Tranquility and without a proper legal framework, the artifact thief might get away with cashing in on one of the most profound moments in human history. And the same threat applies to any manned and robotic lunar missions. In order to preserve these historic sites as they are today, some archeologists and anthropologists have been floating the idea of creating national parks on the Moon’s surface.

While the parks wouldn’t necessarily prevent artifact theft, they would provide a means of deterring a would-be history salesman and the legal right to prosecute him if he does try to sell an abandoned flag or moon boot he picked up during a lunar vacation. But there’s a slight snag with this idea. According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, it would be illegal for any space faring nation to stake a claim on any part of the Moon. To protect any area of the lunar surface would take coordinated international action and a judicial body that could enforce the laws. And should one nation decide to look the other way in a particular case, a violation could go unpunished due to the complexities of jurisdictions and extradition treaties. Protecting historical space sites from a future tourist invasion is much easier said than done.

Of course, we need to keep in mind that it would be very difficult to bring back anything sizeable from another world without it being noticed. With loads calibrated to the kilogram and space at a major premium, getting an artifact from the Moon to the Earth is no easy task and requires more than one or two complicit parties. Since fully fledged lunar vacations will have to be very expensive and tightly controlled, it would be pretty easy to trace a historical artifact on any market to a likely suspect. Protecting the integrity of historical and important places in outer space from overzealous and opportunistic tourists is an important task for the future and we need to keep it in mind as the space tourism industry ramps up. However, there may be simpler ways to do it than to start creating extraterrestrial parks and protected areas which will require international attention and efforts to adopt and enforce.


who's moon is it anyway?

December 14, 2008 — 9 Comments

A recent article on wonders who owns the Moon. No, really. To who does a celestial object really belong? During a previous interview with Dr. Ian O’Neill, this was a topic that came up several times and according to current laws, nobody really owns the Moon or any of the planets. There are discoverer’s rights, but there’s no explicit, internationally defined ownership of an extraterrestrial body. These laws are about to be put to the test as Japan, China, India and the United States set their sights on the Moon.

earth and the moon

It’s entirely plausible that the Moon will be divided into territories owned by different countries and each territory would then be leased to a company that wants to mine valuable minerals on the lunar surface and is willing to pay for it. The big worry is whether owning territory on other worlds means that there has to be a military presence there and according to Dr. O’Neill, that could be a death knell to mining and R&D work. After all, who in his or her right mind will want to set up a multi-billion dollar infrastructure on the Moon while missiles fly overhead?

An interesting tangent to this are the lunar land plots supposedly being sold by small agencies around the world to private customers. If you bought one of those lunar plot certificates, you should call and ask for your money back as there seems to be no law allowing these agencies to enforce the certificates’ powers or defend your claim on the Moon. For anyone to own any piece of our natural satellite, the land has to be first claimed by a nation and then allowed to be sold off by that nation’s government.

What do you think? Who really owns the Moon? Is it even right to own a celestial object to begin with? Would you buy lunar real estate if you could?