Regulating Outer Space

Making Space Commerce a Priority

View of the Earth from the International Space Station, August 21, 2011. NASA / Reuters

The U.S. space industry is about more than just space exploration. It is a source of innovation that helps drive the global economy, with revenues of about $330 billion in 2014. From satellite communications, GPS receivers, and geospatial imaging to weather forecasting and national security, space goods and services are integral to U.S. economic competitiveness and security. And U.S. entrepreneurs are creating exciting new capabilities, from lower cost launch vehicles for sending cargo into orbit to fleets of small satellites that continuously observe the Earth. In-orbit satellite servicing can repair costly government satellites and the ability to mine asteroids and lunar surface for resources can reduce the cost of sending supplies from Earth.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires all signatories, including the United States, to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” for all of their space activities. For private U.S. companies, this typically means that they must get a federal license to operate in space. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues licenses for the operation of communications satellites. Launching into space or reentering the earth requires permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) oversees licenses for remote sensing satellites that take high precision images of the Earth.

However, the emergence of new private space capabilities has revealed gaps in current U.S. law and regulations. For example, there are today no clear governmental authorities for licensing most in-orbit operations, such as satellite servicing, or private research or tourist facilities in space. Similarly, there is no clear international process for recognizing private claims of space resources or mechanisms to coordinate the removal of space junk, as even a small scrap of metal is the property of some nation. The United States has clear rules controlling the export of sensitive space technologies on Earth, but lacks clear rules for private sector operations in space. This has caused some countries, such as Russia, to question whether private U.S. space companies are being supervised

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