First Ever Space Crime? A Wakeup Call for Extra-Terrestrial Law

Now that the first ever space crime has allegedly been committed, should we expect a court, a jury and an executioner in space?

Towards the end of August it was reported that NASA is said to be investigating the first ever allegation of a crime in space. An astronaut named Anne McClain allegedly accessed the bank account of her estranged spouse from the International Space Station, but denies any wrongdoing.

Below one of the world’s leading space law experts, Professor Ram S. Jakhu of McGill University discusses the case on behalf of Asgardia, offering some insight into the future of law beyond our planet.

The current technological and entrepreneurial developments in various countries indicate that space exploration and settlements will probably be a reality within a decade or two, as humans return to the Moon, venture to Mars, and reach distant asteroids.  Both public and private space stations with space habitations might soon become commonplace. Innovation and advances in space technologies and operations outstrip the antiquated laws that currently exist. Thus, not before long, there will need to be a set of laws and governance in place for all eventualities in space as there is on Earth, instead of the case-by-case nature that currently addresses issues and problems as they arise.

There will need to be a set of laws and governance in place for all eventualities in space as there is on Earth, instead of the case-by-case nature that currently addresses issues and problems as they arise.

Anne McClain’s case of a possible first space crime is simple and straightforward. The alleged crime is reported to have been committed by an US citizen against another US citizen, onboard the US Module of the ISS and having its entire effect within the US.

According to the ISS international agreement, in this case, the US holds prosecutorial jurisdiction over the actions of Anne McClain, and thus appropriate US national laws are expected to be invoked so as to determine the criminality of Ms. McClain’s action. However, this is an important and urgent wakeup call for the adoption of new legal rules of extra-territorial law (space law) that would regulate human relationships by establishing rights and obligations of space faring humans while in outer space.

Undoubtedly, with the expected exponential growth in space activities and long duration human presence in space for a variety of purposes (like space tourism, space mining and space settlements), the number of future space crimes can reasonably be expected to increase in the future. The nature and scope of crimes maybe complex, and a single criminal activity may involve individuals from different countries and possessing multiple nationalities. The implications and impact of space crimes may also possibly be much more devastating to humans as well to the earth and space environment than a mere improper or illegal access to a bank account of one person in one country. For example, the nature of space crimes might vary from murders in space, to hijacking of a space transportation vehicle, and to detonation of a nuclear device in space.

It would be logical and imperative that such rules are the same for all space faring humans, irrespective of the fact that they hold different Earthly nationalities. This would need new and innovative thinking and approach, entirely different from past and present practices based on Earthly ‘State or Nation centric’ approach in the making and application of space laws.

Such a possibility or scenario will then beg solutions, which could require enactment of appropriate rules and regulations, both at international and national levels, not only to guide but also to regulate human behavior in space. It would be logical and imperative that such rules are the same for all space faring humans, irrespective of the fact that they hold different Earthly nationalities. This would need new and innovative thinking and approach, entirely different from past and present practices based on Earthly ‘State or Nation centric’ approach in the making and application of space laws.

Laws for space habitats would need to be space-centric, addressing specific needs of humans living in this new environment; the physical and legal characteristics of which are completely different from those of the Earth (for example, lack of gravity, oxygen and national sovereignty). As humanity approaches a time when humans may realistically be living and working in space, an international centralized space governance system will be needed to bring all nations, individuals and institutional entities involved in space utilization under a common legal system and jurisdiction.

NOTE: The author acknowledges with gratitude the help provided by Mr. Nishith Mishra in reviewing and providing valuable comments on the earlier draft of this paper. However, the author remains exclusively responsible for any errors contained in this paper: Ram S. Jakhu.

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