What to know before launching an object into space
International law contains a set of rules which governs space activities, and which is commonly referred to as space law. One of the concepts at the heart of space law is known as the launching State. Recalling the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (1972) and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (1975), a launching State is any State that “launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space” and any State “from whose territory or facility an object is launched”.
The immediate interpretation after this definition is clear: for each and every object sent into space, there should be at least one State identified which bears international responsibility and liability, regardless of whether the State itself (i.e. the government) is at the origin of the launch or a natural or juridical person under its jurisdiction. Indeed, being a launching State means being liable for any damage that the object may cause either on Earth or in space, and the status as a launching State cannot be shed at a later date.
When seeing a rocket lifting off, the launching State is not the only legal issue to be aware of. While a State is liable for launching an object into space, this object is also subject to discussion. What does include the term space object? According to the Liability and Registration Conventions, a space object “includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Here is the thing. Imagine State A pays for the launch of its satellite, and State B launches the satellite with its launch vehicle. Then State A will become the launching State of the satellite, and State B will not only become the launching State of the launch vehicle, but also the launching State of the satellite. To conclude, a space object can have more than one launching State associated.
Nevertheless, the launching State does not necessarily have to be a State. It can also be an international organisation, such as the European Space Agency (ESA). In case of a damage caused by an ESA space object, both ESA and its Member States have an administrative system to deal with the legal consequences and the apportionment of liability, including with those Member States that are not parties to the Liability Convention.
Commercial launch services: the case of the French Guiana Space Center
The Guiana Space Center (CSG) is Europe’s spaceport, and France is liable for any space object launched to space from Kourou. Any space activity to be carried out in CSG is subject to a European framework for launch services. Arianespace is the launch services operator in CSG, and its launch services are governed by national regulation as a result of specific international agreements passed with ESA on CSG facilities: the legal source of safety rules at the CSG launch base. Additional national regulations include the Declaration between the Ariane Exploitation Phase Participating States (including France). Such States give mandate to ESA to conclude an Arrangement with the private operator Arianespace to implement the “exploitation” phase: legal source of the French Launch State special liability.
Nevertheless, the Space Operations Act (SOA) entered into force in 2008, and authorizes and monitors space operations. The scope of its authorization regime encompasses the principle of prior authorization or license for carrying out a space operation as well as the exclusion of the operations carried out in the scope of a public executed by CNES. According to the Article I, a space operation is “any activity consisting in launching or attempting to launch an object in outer space, or in ensuring the command of a space object during its journey in outer space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies, as well as during its return on Earth”.
So, who can carry out a space operation in Kourou? Article II defines a new applicant as “any operator, no matter its nationality, that aims at launching a space object from the national territory or from facilities under the jurisdiction of France, or when such an object comes back to the national territory or facilities under the jurisdiction of France”. This means that launch services operators are subject to the French territory jurisdiction criteria, whereas French launch services operators are subject to French nationality criteria, no matter whether they launch from a foreign State or a place lacking of sovereignty. Furthermore, any French person that purchases a launch service or intends to operate a space object is under French jurisdiction.
As a result, the launching of a non-French satellite by a French operator (e.g. Arianespace) from CGS is not subjected to the SOA, since Arianespace is already authorized and controlled for such operation. Consequently, the command phase, the “period of time starting as part of a space operation at the moment when the object to be put in outer space is separated from its launch vehicle” and ending when the mission finishes for any predicted or unpredicted event, of such object is out of SOA scope.
The transfer of control of space operations is within the scope of SOA as well. Applicants willing to transfer to a foreign country the command of a space object whose launch or command has been authorized in compliance with the French legislation requires either an authorization, or vice versa.
In brief, the legal issues arising when it comes to space operations tend to be numerous and complex, and a further digging into all of them gets out of scope. This is the ultimate starter pack of launch operations’ legal framework for entrepreneurs looking to cut their teeth on the launch industry.
Posted by Oscar Lafuente Arjona