Our Place in Space: The Outer Space Treaty

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, O is for…


Believe it or not, human law does extend to outer space.  There are international agreements in place saying what is and is not legal in space.  And these agreements go back decades.  It all started with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.  Every nation with a space program has signed on to the Outer Space Treaty, and many nations that do not currently have space programs have signed on as well.  Today, the Outer Space Treaty is regarded as the founding document—the Magna Carta, of sorts—for all of space law.

According to the treaty, any human who goes to space shall be considered an “envoy of mankind,” and all space agencies around the world shall have a responsibility to avoid the “harmful contamination” of any alien environments they wish to explore.  Provisions like that reflect the idealism of the 1960’s, I feel, but there are also provisions that reflect the deeper fears and anxieties of that time.  Most notably:

  • No nuclear weapons in space.
  • Seriously, no nation may put nuclear weapons in space.  Ever!
  • No nation may use the Moon or any other celestial body for military purposes.
  • No nation may claim ownership of the Moon or any other celestial body.
  • Did I mention this already?  I may have mentioned this already, but it’s really important: NO NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN SPACE!!!

The good news is there are no nuclear weapons in space.  By all accounts, every nation involved in space exploration has followed the rules the Outer Space Treaty established (or at least no one has ever blatantly violated the treaty).  But will that continue to be the case going forward?

Of late, some concerns have been raised.  You see, when the treaty was written, it was assumed by everyone that governments would be in charge of space exploration, not private companies.  It was assumed that the people who go to space would be highly trained astronauts, not private citizens engaged in space tourism.  So should space tourists be considered “envoys of mankind”?  Are private companies allowed to claim ownership of celestial bodies?  And do private companies have any legal obligation to avoid “harmful contamination” of alien environments?  The Outer Space Treaty is a little unclear about those issues.

As I said, the Outer Space Treaty reflects the idealism of the 1960’s and also the fears and anxieties of that time.  I imagine that, sooner or later, there will be new treaties and new agreements to address the concerns of today.  The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 may be considered the founding document for space law, but it is not the final word on space law.

We live in an ever changing world.  Laws need to be updated to keep up with the times.  That’s been true for all of recorded history.  It’s still true today, and it will continue to be true even in the distant future when humanity is spreading out across the Solar System.

Want to Learn More?

Here’s an article from The Conversation on the Outer Space Treaty and some of the concerns that have been raised in recent years about it.

Protect Europa!

Hello, friends!  We’ve reached the end of October, which means we’ve reached the end of Europa month here on Planet Pailly.  We still haven’t determined whether or not Europa is home to alien life, but I hope I’ve persuaded you to take the possibility of life on Europa seriously.

One question that came up a few times this month was whether or not we should send humans to Europa.  The answer, in my opinion, is no.  First off, as we discussed in a previous post, the radiation environment on Europa is crazy dangerous.  We humans would also struggle with the extreme cold and the very low surface gravity.  I’m not saying a colony on Europa is impossible, but there are far safer and easier places we could choose to go.  The neighboring moons of Ganymede and Callisto, for example, would serve as safer and more comfortable bases of operation for humans.

But there’s another reason why colonizing Europa seems like a bad idea to me.  It’s not a science reason.  It’s a legal issue.  There’s an international agreement in place (Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty) which forbids space agencies like NASA, the E.S.A., or Roscosmos from contaminating other worlds with our Earth germs.  The same agreement also forbids contaminating Earth with germs from other planets.

Some missions are considered riskier than others, contamination-wise.  For example, Article IX doesn’t really apply to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.  There’s no chance Earth germs will be able to contaminate the Sun (and since the probe will not be returning to Earth, there’s no chance any lifeforms from the Sun could contaminate Earth).  There’s actually a whole risk categorization system in place, with five different categories of risk, and a bunch of sub-categories, too.  Click here if you want to know more details about that.

The important thing for our purposes is that any mission to Europa will involve a very high risk of contamination.  We may not know yet if alien life exists on Europa, but the possibility should be taken seriously.  The people who wrote the Outer Space Treaty made it clear that they’d learned the lessons of history and did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past.  We would not want Earth germs to endanger an alien ecosystem on Europa (nor would we want Europa germs endangering Earth-life).

So for the foreseeable future, I think Europa will be off limits to humans.  Europa might even be declared an interplanetary wilderness preserve, or something like that, and if there’s scientific research to be done on Europa, it can be done remotely from bases on Ganymede or Callisto.

There are easier places in the Solar System for us humans to colonize.  There’s no need for humans to go there.  So unless and until someone shows the contamination risk on Europa is zero, let’s leave Europa alone.


As part of my research for this post, I read the two papers listed below.  If you’re interested in how Earth laws work (or don’t work) in outer space, these papers are worth a look.  Also, if you’re interested in writing Sci-Fi, these papers may get the wheels of your Sci-Fi writer brain turning.

Contaminating Mars

The story I’m about to tell is a work of fiction, but it could very well happen in reality one day.  If it did, it could cause an enormous scandal in the scientific community, ruin what remains of NASA’s reputation, and end the careers of anyone directly involved.


The year is 2020.  NASA’s latest Mars rover, Intrepid, has landed successfully and wheeled around a bit, proving that all its systems are functioning.  Intrepid’s predecessor, the Curiosity rover, found evidence in 2013 that life could exist on Mars, but Curiosity wasn’t equipped to test if any life forms do exist there.  Intrepid’s mission is to follow up on Curiosity’s work.

NASA engineers have equipped Intrepid with state-of-the-art biochemical research equipment.  They gave it new technology that wasn’t available when Curiosity was launched, as well as delicate, new digging tools for collecting soil samples.  Scientist carefully selected Intrepid’s landing site, putting it near what they believe is subsurface liquid water melting from one of Mars’s polar ice caps.

Intrepid begins its work, and the very first test comes back positive.  There’s bacterial life on Mars!  Scientists around the world celebrate.  The media goes crazy, and the old theory that life on Earth began on Mars is revived once again when someone notices similarities between the DNA of the Martian microbes and that of life on Earth.  In fact, the Martian bacteria seem to have a lot in common with E. coli.

But the next test shows fewer bacteria.  The one after that shows fewer still, and soon no bacteria can be found at all.  It seems the “Martian” bacteria aren’t capable of surviving on Mars.  Soon, the truth comes out.  One of those delicate digging tools was opened before it left, meaning it may have been contaminated.  Previous studies have already shown that E. coli might be able to survive in space if shielded from ultraviolet radiation.

End of story.

Currently, the United States is part of an international agreement called the Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that any probe we send to another planet must be thoroughly decontaminated.  NASA even has a Planetary Protection Officer, Dr. Catherine Conley, in charge of making sure that we don’t introduce invasive species to alien worlds.  The point of all this is not only to protect alien ecosystems (if they exist) but to ensure that if we do discover life on another planet, we’ll know for certain that its genuine alien life and not something that stowed away on our own space vehicles.

And yet despite the Outer Space Treaty, despite NASA’s own rules and Dr. Conley’s best efforts, one of Curiosity’s digging apparatuses was opened and potentially contaminated before it left Earth in 2011.  Could any bacteria have survived the long journey to Mars?  We don’t know.  It’s possible.  So far it doesn’t seem like any harm was done, but this could be a costly mistake if it ever happens again.