Planetary Policies: Why the Mars Mission is Shaking Up International Space Law

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.”

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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.”

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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.


In pictures: Hubble telescope turns 24 some of its best images

As the Hubble space telescope is set to have its 24th birthday of being in space next week it has released hundreds of images and broadened our knowledge of space and the galaxy.

Earlier in the year the operators of the telescope released a new image to celebrate the anniversary. 

We’ve looked back through the archives from the telescope and picked out some of its most striking images from across the years.

1997: Blue Straggler Star

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For the first time astronomers managed to capture a Blue Straggler – a young star that is among a well-established group of stars.

Nasa said at the time: “This finding provides proof that blue stragglers are created by collisions or other intimate encounters in an overcrowded cluster core.”

1998: Bright Knots being ejected

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This black and white image shows an ejection of mass from a super-hot star known as a Wolf-Tayet star.

Nasa said at the time: “The blobs may result from the furious stellar wind that does not flow smoothly into space but has instabilities which make it clumpy.

“This black and white image was made in the light of atomic hydrogen.”  

2000: Satellite footprints is Jupiter Aurora

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Half a billion miles away on Jupiter this electric-blue aurora is glowing.

Nasa said: “Though the aurora resembles the same phenomenon that crowns Earth’s polar regions, the Hubble image shows unique emissions from the magnetic “footprints” of three of Jupiter’s largest moons.”

2004: 400-year old Supernova mystery solved

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The last object to explode in our Milky Way galaxy was finally revealed as Kepler’s supernova in 2004 by the use of the Hubble and also two other observatories.

“When a new star appeared alongside Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn on Oct. 9, 1604, observers could use only their eyes to study it. The telescope would not be invented for another four years,” said Nasa.

It continued: “Modern-day astronomers, on the other hand, have the combined abilities of the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory at their disposal.”

2005: Mosaic of the Crab Nebula

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This is the highest resolution image of the Crab Nebula, a six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion, that has even been captured.

Nasa said: “His composite image was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 in October 1999, January 2000, and December 2000.”

2013: 3-D Structure of Ejected Material

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The Hubble telescope and its team tracked light from an erupting star and managed to create a 3D structure of the material.

Nasa said: “After 45 years of peaceful bliss, the nova T Pyxidis erupted again in 2011.

“Astronomers took advantage of a flash of light accompanying the blast to map the ejecta from previous outbursts surrounding the double-star system.”


All images courtesy of Nasa and the Hubble Telescope.