Law professor encourages legal framework for colonisation of outer space

by Duffie Osental13 Feb 2019

With more private companies seeking to establish colonies on Mars, a law professor at the University of Waikato said that a legal framework for space colonisation must first be established.

Legal expert Anna Marie Brennan from University of Waikato’s Te Piringa - Faculty of Law is currently teaching the country’s first university paper on space law. Speaking to the New Zealand Law Society, Brennan explained that New Zealand is a signatory to the international Outer Space Treaty, which states that no state or person can claim ownership of a celestial body. However, the treaty is decades old, and potentially outdated.

Brennan said that the situation may pose some interesting legal questions, particularly around the issue of sovereignty. “At the same time, you have questions about who would govern a habitat there,” said Brennan. “Is it us Earthlings, or do we govern at arm's length? How do we safeguard the environment on Mars as well? You could make an argument the Outer Space Treaty is out of date, because it is private corporations at the forefront of the space race today, rather than countries. So what law would apply and how? Elon Musk wants to establish a colony on Mars, and SpaceX is an American company, so you could say any habitat there would be governed by American law, but if a Russian company set up shop next to Elon, then that would be governed by Russian law. It makes things extremely messy.”

Brennan said that the law must be sorted out before a mission to colonise Mars is even planned. “Even if you do develop the legal framework, because Mars is a hostile environment it’s not possible to foresee every scenario. So, we face further issues about whether the law should be developed slowly and incrementally over time.”