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The building blocks of space legislation

29.6.2017 14.23

Finland is currently preparing an act on space activities. There is no previous legislation on the issue. We will not have to start from nothing, however, as others have faced this situation before us and there is lively international discussion on national legislation.

In numerous contexts, international discussion has concerned the issues that should be laid down at the national level. Among others, the legal subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has considered the subject in its working group. As a result of this work, the UN has issued a recommendation on the contents of the national legislation. The International Law Association (ILA) has prepared a model law to aid the work of legislators (the Sofia Guidelines for a Model Law).

These recommendations and model law recognise the key elements, or the so-called building blocks, of space legislation.  They are based on the UN instruments on outer space. The building blocks of space legislation include the scope of the act, the authorisation for space activities and related supervision, registration of space objects, liability for damage, and the authorisation for the transfer of activities as well as environmental questions, including space debris. Finland's Act on Space Activities is also comprised of these elements.

Authorisation procedure ensures the safety of activities

Under the UN Outer Space Treaty, each state is responsible for its national space activities. The Act would thus apply to space activities carried on within the territory of Finland as well as the space activities carried on elsewhere by a Finnish citizen or a legal person incorporated in Finland. The space activities would include launching satellites and other space objects into outer space, operation and control of such objects in outer space, as well as measures to return the space objects to the Earth.

Under the Outer Space Treaty, private individuals may only carry on space activities by permission, and under the supervision, of the state. In Finland, the operator should apply for a prior authorisation by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. The consideration of the application would particularly ensure the safety of the operations and conformity with the international obligations that bind Finland. The transfer of space activities would be similarly subject to a permit.

A register and supervision aid access to information

The UN Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (a.k.a. Registration Convention) obligates states to establish a national register on space objects. In Finland, certain basic information of the objects launched to outer space would be entered into the register maintained by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. This would be a public register making the information of Finnish space objects easily available for everyone.

Under the UN Outer Space Treaty, Finland is responsible for supervising the space activities carried on by private actors. The operator should, in an annual report submitted to the Ministry, describe especially the state of its space activities and any related changes. The supervision would be enhanced by imposing a financial penalty on certain violations or neglects under the Act.

Liability for damage and responsibility for the environment

In accordance with the UN Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (a.k.a. Space Liability Convention), states bear responsibility for compensating for damages caused by their space activities. If a state was obligated to pay compensation to a third party, under the Act, it would have the right to recover the compensation paid to the injured party from the operator.

In its application for authorisation of space activities, the operator would have to assess the risks for damage of the activities on the earth, in the atmosphere and in outer space. Depending on the level of risk, the operator could be liable to take out insurance against damage caused by the space activities.

The space activities could not have adverse environmental impacts on the Earth, the atmosphere and outer space. The operator would also have to seek to prevent the generation of space debris in its activities.

The goal is flexibility and new business opportunities

The objective of the Act is to provide space activities carried on in Finland with a clear framework, smooth authorisation process and uniform operator obligations. However, the goal must be to keep the administrative burden to a minimum. 

A positive attitude towards carrying on space activities is the starting point. There is no reason to set limitations to the activities if their safety and other conditions for granting an authorisation are in order.

Maija Lönnqvist, Senior Legal Counsel 


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