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The Financial Express

The legal jurisdiction in outer space


Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to go to outer space, was killed along with other crew members as the shuttle carrying her flight got damaged during its take-off Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to go to outer space, was killed along with other crew members as the shuttle carrying her flight got damaged during its take-off

We have all grown up watching space operas and space movies through which we have been fascinated by the idea of life beyond earth and the life of astronauts who have the privilege of doing space travels. Ever since the American astronaut Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon, as the first human in the year of 1969, the fiction started to seem like a reality for many nations. Kalpana Chawla, from India, was one such dreamer who was able to fulfill her fantasy to visit the outer space. She was one of the most brilliant minds and the first Indian woman to go to outer space. Aboard her second flight however, which was named flight STS-107 carried by the Space Shuttle Columbia, hot atmospheric air entered the shuttle wing, as it re-entered into the Earth's atmosphere. This had damaged the shuttle wings during take-off which resulted in the shuttle breaking apart and killing all seven crew members, including Kalpana Chawla. But many, including her father, believe that Kalpana had been part of a conspiracy and NASA knew about it, all along that Columbia was destined for a disaster. Now the question might come as to how a person an be held responsible if he/she commits an act of crime in the outer space.
In the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, nations have ensured that they have legal jurisdictions well beyond the planet Earth. The Article VIII of the treaty specifically points out: "Whenever one nation that is a party to the treaty launches an object such as a spacecraft, satellite or space station into space, or builds one on a celestial body, that nation retains jurisdiction and control over it." So therefore, if for example, an US astronaut is accused of committing a crime such as a murder in outer space while the person is travelling by a NASA spacecraft or a commercial space vehicle which has been launched from the USA, the federal prosecutors or even the FBI would be able to arrest the accused person. The person can be brought back to earth for federal trial. But what will happen when there is a crime or a murder occurring in the International Space Station and when the accused is a murderer and the victims are citizens of two different countries?
This provision is covered under Article 22 of the Intergovernmental Agreement of 1998, which is between the United States of America and other nations. The article states that such an issue could be solved through the process of consultation between the nations. But given the fact that companies such as Blue Origin and Space X are rapidly expanding plans to turn space travel into a reality, the day is not far when we might see a crime happening inside an orbital private sector hotel. Since the private sector would be making profit as their first priority rather than screening the individuals who are sent to space as NASA or other organisations do, chances of crime occurring in space are very high. Also, provided the fact that people from different nationalities are involved, in the development of the hotel once again in accordance with the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, diplomatic negotiations are the only way to solve the issue of space crimes.
If we revert to the case of Kalpana Chawla and the said conspiracy theory and compare it to a hypothetical scenario, an astronaut on a space walk may decide to cut off another astronaut's tether. In that case, the victim could spin off and possibly be drawn back to the Earth's atmosphere, where the person would be burned to death. In this case no nation can have a jurisdiction because the act would have occurred beyond an object or a celestial body controlled by a nation. This proves the need of the development of space laws but however every person who is going to the outer space has a national citizenship and therefore, it falls under the responsibility of the launching state, or of their state of citizenship, to make that person accountable for their actions in the outer space and do justice to that person.
The complexity of Space crime, especially murder, arises when the accused person is brought on trial, because in that scenario there needs to be enough evidence which goes beyond reasonable doubt to prove that the particular person is guilty. In this case, Space Cops may be a good idea, to help the prosecution with the matter at hand but it would be an extremely costly affair, since space travel is very costly. In a time when space travel is in the process of becoming a reality, when missions to Mars seem only decades away, the International Community needs to come together to rewrite some of the laws in regards to outer space. Otherwise, the judges will have to take statutes and legal standards that were developed on Earth to deal with murder and other such crimes in the outer space. Even though there exists an inter-governmental organisation, namely United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) which promotes and facilitates peaceful international cooperation in outer space, the space laws are in need of a great amount of development for a better and safe future, beyond this planet.

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