Manned missions to Mars are becoming a serious prospect, with NASA chief Charles Bolden suggesting yesterday that they could turn humanity into a multi-planet species.
However, according to the research professor of space policy and international affairs at the George Washington University, Dr Henry Hertzfeld, space law has a lot of catching up to do if it is to address the issues raised by missions to the red planet.
Speaking at today’s Humans 2 Mars Summit in Washington DC, the US, Hertzfeld explained that existing treaties do not cover the possibility of visiting Mars.
“There’s nothing, nothing at all that prohibits us from going to Mars in the space treaties,” explained Hertzfeld. “In fact they are organised for exploration, for scientific purposes, for freedom of access, for international cooperation and of course, underlying all of them, for peaceful purposes. But there are a couple of issues which we’ll have to deal with.”
One of the issues that Hertzfeld believes could occur is the matter of sovereignty. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents governments from claiming ownership of celestial bodies such as the moon or other planets.
In principle, this makes a lot of sense: it stops certain countries claiming other planets before other countries have developed the means to leave earth, and ensures that space-based resources are there for everybody to enjoy.
But if Mars becomes colonised, this could muddy the waters. Would the inhabitants be permitted some form of ownership similar to earth? Or would ownership be treated differently from its equivalent on our home planet?
“People when they go somewhere want to own things,” explained Hertzfeld. “We do not have a solution to how we handle that yet, but there are many ways that we can address this issue without a serious problem.”
Other issues relate to the role of private companies in space travel. Over the past few years private companies have taken on a lot of roles relating to space missions, but the law has not changed to reflect this.
“There are major regulatory differences depending on whether a government is doing the project, whether a private company is or if it’s some sort of partnership, be it partnership between governments and companies, or international cooperative partnerships,” said Hertzfield.
One of the key issues in this area is liability – who is to blame if something goes wrong? With space travel in particular, there is a high element of risk, and clarifying liability before projects go ahead is vital for long-term mission success.
Another concern is the types of activities being performed in such missions. Is the mission purely research-focussed, or are companies looking to make a profit?
The biggest question is whether Mars should be treated the same as the moon, and so follow the same rules and regulations relating to exploration, or whether it should be treated differently and a potential second home for humanity.
NASA’s other missions may also bring similar concerns – with a planned asteroid mission underway, there is a question of whether asteroids should be treated the same as the moon.
“At least emotionally we think of [asteroids] differently, and we may have to have some sort of set of rules that will deal with these,” said Hertzfield.
Featured and first body image courtesy of NASA.
Second image screenshot from Humans 2 Mars webcast.