The higher you go, the more things remain the same? Brief highlights of Outer Space colonization by a postcolonial and decolonizing Earth.
By Muriuki Sharon
Elon Musk’s Space X and Star Link ventures, natural disasters, tech age and a general human curiosity have had much of the world focused upwards towards the sky, its planets and luminaries. Roles and benefits of space science include monitoring climate change, checking on the general health of earth, and identifying effective measures to address such issues. However, space waste and space junk have put public safety and environmental disaster consequences on communities far removed from space tech in the news. On May 26th 2021, NASA published a report that the Space Surveillance Network is tracking more than 27,000 pieces of space junk. NASA further explains that orbital debris includes natural meteoroid and human /artificial debris such as nonfunctional space craft, abandoned launch vehicles, and mission related debris and fragmentation debris (NASA 2021). Such debris has been proven to crash back to earth, causing panic and questions as to damages, responsibility, and compensation in case of injuries.
Similarities with ‘land and sea’ colonization:
A circle of the financially fortunate
Space business is expensive. The European Space Agency puts the costs of running the International Space Station at 100 billion Euros over a period of 10 years. The costs are shared amongst the USA, Russia, Canada, Japan and 10 European nations that are members of the European Space Agency. Just like the onset of colonial conquests, space colonization requires exploratory missions and money. This makes it a venture of a few privileged individuals, companies and nations but whose consequences affect people and countries unequally.
Pollution and waste
A cargo ship ‘MV Probo Koala’ dumped toxic waste in the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan on 19th August, 2006 causing deaths and other related medical incidents. The source of the waste was the Netherlands. The OHCHR called upon the Ivorian government to address the health and environmental effects of the waste while calling for the Dutch and British governments to provide support for the exercise. Côte d’Ivoire was also the location of space debris fall in May 2020 when debris from a Chinese satellite fell and crashed on earth, followed by another Chinese rocket crash a year later in May 2021 whose debris landed just west of the Maldives. There had been fears that the rocket would land on inhabited areas on its trajectory back to Earth.
A Spatial Divergence, commercialization of space and the entry of different actors including ‘smaller countries’
The Great Divergence is a concept used in economic history to explain when and why economic inequality between Western Europe and the rest of the world occurred. Trading companies, their middle man role and the commercialization of colonial interests were a key cornerstone of successful colonial projects. Colonial trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company were instrumental in colonization of parts of South East Asia and the spread of globalization through transport, trade and employment. (Zwart 2016, 10-14). The new space race includes companies and government-corporate arrangements allowing small nations to establish space presence. The modern times difference is that these companies are cooperating with postcolonial governments in the race to space. The Rwandese government and the telecom company One Web entered into a partnership and launched the Icyerekezo Satellite in 2019. The technology is aimed at assisting Rwanda connect Rwandese schools with internet. There has also been an increased interest in space programs by smaller nations such as New Zealand, Singapore and Luxembourg by partnering with private space-tech companies or by using their lands for development of such programs. Space may provide a new area for spatial convergence where old powers will be joined by new economic and space tech powers such as India and China.
Space and its governance
Unlike the onset of ‘land’ and ‘sea’ between the 16th and 19th centuries’ colonization where hitherto world empires relied on explorers, missionaries and the lack of binding international legal instruments, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the advancement of treaties, conventions and resolutions to govern space and its usage. The administrative and regulative functions of the law will provide nations with avenues for space contracts and payouts. According to the Space Foundation, five legal mechanisms exist for the governance of space issues. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) compiles and distributes the status (ratification and signing) of these international legal instruments among other space law and technology functions.
(a)Outer Space usage and exploration is governed by the 1967 ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies (UNOOSA, 2023).
This 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the foundational space law. It calls for exploration and use of the outer space for the benefit and interest of all countries and mankind. It also declares that space is free for exploration and use by all states ,space cannot be nationally appropriated, states shall not place nuclear weapons or WMDs in space, the Moon shall be used for peaceful purposes, astronauts are regarded as envoys of mankind, states shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by government or non-governmental entities, states shall be liable for damages caused by their space objects and states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies (UNOOSA, 2023)
- The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and Return of Objects Launched in Space
The Rescue Agreement of 1968 obligates state parties to rescue and assist astronauts in distress and promptly return them to the launching states as well as cooperation in the recovery of space objects that return to Earth outside the territorial jurisdiction of the Launching State. (UNOOSA, 2023)
( c) The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects
The Liability Convention came into force in September 1972. It expressly states that the launching state shall be liable to compensate damages caused by the space objects launched on and from their land. (UNOOSA, 2023)
- Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space
This convention also known as the Registration Convention was adopted by the General Assembly in 1974 and came into force in 1976. It mandates UNOOSA to maintain a register of objects launched into outer space. (UNOOSA, 2023)
- The Agreement Governing the Activities of the States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies
The Moon Agreement entered into force in July 1984 governs states’ actions on the Moon and other celestial bodies such as Mars where NASA has sent rovers since the entry into force of the Agreement. It states that these celestial bodies shall be used for peaceful purposes, non-disturbance of their environment, report to the UN of locations and purposes of stations established there, that the resources in the Moon and other celestial bodies is for the common heritage of mankind and the establishment of another legal instrument to govern the exploitation of space resources such as minerals should that become feasible (UNOOSA, 2023)
Unequal earthlings: Legal launch and compensatory detachment
The multidisciplinary nature of space usage disputes range from contractual, environmental to personal injuries. The Liability Convention, under Article VIII, provides for legal mechanisms to use when disputes and claims arise. A state which suffers damage, whose natural or juridical persons suffer damage may present a claim to the Launching State. If the state of nationality or the state in whose territory the damage was sustained does not present a claim, another state may in respect of the damage sustained by its residents present a claim to the Launching State (UNOOSA). State claims shall be presented through diplomatic channels and if they do not exist, another state may be requested to present the claim. If this fails, a Claims Commission comprising of 3 members appointed by the Claimant State, the Launching State and a third party (which chairs the Commission) shall be formed to solve the dispute. The decision of the Claims Commission is final. When diplomacy fails, the Secretary General of the United Nations can also present such claims where parties are members of the UN (UNOOSA). This has to be done within a period of one year following the occurrence of the damage. The Convention further provides for the use of a launching states courts and tribunals to settle under Article XI.
Despite the existence of these legal provisions, the application and enforcement of international space law is affected by the newness of this branch of law. It has been said to be a more substantive than procedural part of law. This is due to relatively few numbers of space law cases and the geo-political and economic powers of states with giant space programs vis-a-vis smaller states. This coupled with reliance of diplomacy and economic strength of state for effective application and implementation of international law, creates an imbalance of power where space expeditions launched haphazardly and for cosmetic reasons by postcolonial/decolonial/emerging economies states puts them in weaker diplomatic –legal positions should a space dispute arise. In addition, while satellite images have been used to address and monitor changes in climate, monitor disasters from hurricanes and typhoons, and measure degrees of desertification, copyrights and cultural dignity over space images of cultural heritage sites, ceremonies and private property are issues that may arise as the world becomes united in technology.
The sun sets over Lake Trummen in Växjö, Sweden on May 18th, 2023. (Photo Muriuki Sharon).
Satellite images have been used to address issues such as climate change and other environmental developments, relying images of countries who are otherwise unable to afford technology for such ventures.
List of References
BBC News. 2021. ‘Chinese Rocket debris crashes into Indian ocean-state media’. BBC News .May 9th 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57045058
European Space Agency. nd. ‘Science and Exploration:‘How much does it cost?. Accessed 22nd September, 2023.https://www.esa.int/Science_Exploration/Human_and_Robotic_Exploration/International_Space_Station/How_much_does_it_cost
Georgiou Aristos.2020. ‘Debris from 18-ton Chinese rocket that crashed to earth may have landed in Africa’. Newsweek, May 14th 2020. https://www.newsweek.com/debris-chinese-rocket-africa-15003950
Lulea University of Technology. 2022 ‘Space Technology benefits the earth’. Accessed September 22nd 2023. https://www.ltu.se/ltu/acoolerfuture/Var-forskning/Rymdteknik-gor-nytta-pa-jorden-1.225300?l=en
Meishan Goh G. 2007. Dispute Settlement in International Space Law: A Multi-Door Courthouse for Outer Space. Leiden. Boston. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ProQuest Ebrary.
MIBNEDUC. 2023. ‘Rwanda and Oneweb launch ‘Icycerekezo Satellite’ named by students from Nkombo Island. Accessed September 22nd, 2023. https://www.mineduc.gov.rw/news-detail/rwanda-and-obeweb-launch-icyerekezo-satellite
NASA.2021.‘Space Debris and Human Spacecraft’ Last modified May 27th 2021. https://www.nasa.gov.mission_pages/sattion/news/orbital_debris.html.
Noack Rick. 2019. ‘Some of the world’s smallest nations have joined the space race.’ The Independent July 17th, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/space-race-apollo-11-anniversary-moon-landing-nasa-a9008421.html
OHCHR. 2016. ‘Ten years in, the survivors of illegal toxic waste dumping in Cote d’Ivoire remain in the dark: The Probo Koala Incident. Accessed 22nd September, 2023. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2016/08/ten-years-survivors-illegal-toxic-waste-dumping-cote-divoire-remain-dark
Space Foundation. 2023. Space Briefing Book: Space Law. Accessed September 21st, 2023. https://spacefoundation.org/space_brief/international-space-law/
UNOOSA. 2023. ‘Space Law Treaties and Principles’ Accessed September 22nd, 2023. https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties.html
Zwart de Pim. 2016. ‘Globalization and the Colonial Origins of the Great Divergence: Intercontinental Trade and Living Standards in Dutch east India Company’s Commercial Empire c 1600-1800’ in Global Economic History Series . Edited by Prak Maarten and Zanden Jan Luiten . 1-31.Leiden. Boston: Brill. ProQuest Ebrary.
 Lulea University of Technology. 2022 ‘Space Technology benefits the earth’. Accessed September 22nd 2023. https://www.ltu.se/ltu/acoolerfuture/Var-forskning/Rymdteknik-gor-nytta-pa-jorden-1.225300?l=en
NASA.2021. ‘Space Debris and Human Spacecraft’ Last modified May 27th 2021. https://www.nasa.gov.mission_pages/sattion/news/orbital_debris.html.
 European Space Agency. nd. ‘Science and Exploration: ‘How much does it cost? Accessed 22nd September, 2023. https://www.esa.int/Science_Exploration/Human_and_Robotic_Exploration/International_Space_Station/How_much_does_it_cost
 OHCHR. 2016. ‘Ten years in, the survivors of illegal toxic waste dumping in Cote d’Ivoire remain in the dark: The Probo Koala Incident. Accessed 22nd September, 2023. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2016/08/ten-years-survivors-illegal-toxic-waste-dumping-cote-divoire-remain-dark
 Georgiou Aristos.2020. ‘Debris from 18-ton Chinese rocket that crashed to earth may have landed in Africa’. Newsweek, May 14th 2020. https://www.newsweek.com/debris-chinese-rocket-africa-15003950
 BBC News. 2021. ‘Chinese Rocket debris crashes into Indian ocean-state media’. BBC News .May 9th 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57045058
 Zwart de Pim. 2016. ‘Globalization and the Colonial Origins of the Great Divergence: Intercontinental Trade and Living Standards in Dutch east India Company’s Commercial Empire c 1600-1800’ in Global Economic History Series . Edited by Prak Maarten and Zanden Jan Luiten . 1-31.Leiden. Boston: Brill. ProQuest Ebrary.
 MIBNEDUC. 2023. ‘Rwanda and Oneweb launch ‘Icycerekezo Satellite’ named by students from Nkombo Island. Accessed September 22nd, 2023. https://www.mineduc.gov.rw/news-detail/rwanda-and-obeweb-launch-icyerekezo-satellite
 Noack Rick. 2019. ‘Some of the world’s smallest nations have joined the space race.’ The Independent July 17th, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/space-race-apollo-11-anniversary-moon-landing-nasa-a9008421.html
 Space Foundation. 2023. Space Briefing Book: Space Law. Accessed September 21st, 2023. https://spacefoundation.org/space_brief/international-space-law/
 UNOOSA. 2023. ‘Space Law Treaties and Principles’ Accessed September 22nd, 2023. https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties.html
 Meishan Goh G. 2007. Dispute Settlement in International Space Law: A Multi-Door Courthouse for Outer Space. Leiden. Boston. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ProQuest Ebrary.