The politics of space colonisation

International laws on space talk about nation-states and how to keep them in check, but there is no mention of private players.

WrittenBy:Martand Jha
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Earlier this month, the annual World Space Week was celebrated across the globe. This year’s theme, chosen by the United Nations, was “Space Unites the World”. Started in 1999, this annual weekly event commemorates the launch of Sputnik 1, the first ever artificial satellite, by the USSR on October 4, 1957, and the signing of the Outer Space Treaty on October 10th, 1967. Space Week is meant to celebrate the “contributions of space science and technology to the betterment of the human condition”.

Since time immemorial, outer space has captured the imaginations of people across the globe. As a result, when outer space became a strategic domain and within the reach of superpowers like the US and the Soviet Union, the idea to colonise space started taking shape. Since then, many manned and unmanned missions to outer space have been sent in order to search for a new home for the inhabitants of Earth.

The idea to colonise outer space is two-fold. The objectives of these missions have been (a) to look for conditions which could support life; and (b) to see if life forms are present anywhere apart from earth. On many occasions, reports have come out regarding the presence of water on Mars, the most recent being a report published in July 2018 in Science titled “Radar evidence of subglacial liquid water on Mars”.

However, there’s still a long way to go before the scientific community gets some conclusive evidence regarding the presence of life on other planets and other celestial bodies. Until then, the politics of space colonisation will not take any concrete shape because space exploration is a very expensive business which only a select few nations in the world can afford to do. The US remains a leading powerhouse in the arena of space exploration with private players willing to invest hefty sums in this sector.

The risks of space colonisation were already debated 50 years ago when the United Nations realised that space weaponisation could prove extremely dangerous to global security. This ultimately led to the signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967—more verbosely known as the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. Article II of this treaty clearly states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

Simply put, the colonisation of outer space can only happen through cooperation among states. This eliminates chances of conflict among states which could have otherwise arisen. The international laws on outer space already have many checks and balances to ensure the safety and security of Earth.

However, with private players becoming increasingly interested in spending money on space missions and space colonisation, things could take a dramatic turn. The Outer Space Treaty and international laws on space talk about nation-states and how to keep them in check, but there is no mention of private players. Everyone thought only nation-states would have the wherewithal and intentions to invest such huge amounts in space exploration. With the proliferation of private players—which is only likely to increase—it’s hard to say what twists and turns lie in the politics of space colonisation in future.


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