The Space Law Games

The creation of the Outer Space Treaty and the subsequent treaty developments aimed to put in place a core legal framework governing human activity in space. Despite this, the legal contours of commercial Space operations especially regarding the determination of fault in the event of an incident in Outer Space, are both vague and uncertain.

The Space Law Games represents an attempt by both industry and academia to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries to provide some clarity as to the roles and responsibilities of all users of space in both preventing and managing a collision in Earth Orbit. The Space Law Games will use the methodology of War-gaming – often used by the military sphere to inform the development of plans and tactics for operations – with the Moot Court proceedings to address the lack of legal capability and protection in Outer Space. At present, there has not been any litigation regarding on-orbit collisions and there is uncertainty as to how the international legal regime could manage a significant collision event in orbit.

If a satellite is damaged in orbit, the economic, political and strategic implications could be significant. The Iridium 33 & Kosmos-2251 collision is a good example of this. Not only was it the second and fourth largest source of human-made Space Debris1 but it continues to pose problems with satellite operations more than a decade after the collision occurred, as the debris remains in orbit posing a threat to other Space objects. Despite these obvious issues, the parties chose not to litigate and the liability regime remains untested in court. The liability convention states that liability, for damage cause by the space object of one state to another state’s space object is assigned by a fault basis2.

Whilst the principles under the Liability Convention may be sound, satellite operations are unique to any other operation on Earth and normative liability rules cannot be assumed to be automatically transposed to the space environment. Both proving damage and establishing fault are areas that need much greater clarity and explanation. It is the aim of the Space Law Games to use a simulated event to identify areas which will both inhibit and enhance the prospect of a collision in space being the subject of successful litigation. The Space Law Games aims to identify the key issues, faced by all parties involved in the Space environment by simulating on-orbit debris generating events. Given the differences in the different orbital regimes, there will be two simulations: one in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) and one in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Following on from the simulation, data that is available will be curated and handed to a team of legal experts who will attempt to answer the following questions in contemplation of potential legal proceedings:

  1. How could the event have been avoided?
  2. Identify the roles and responsibilities of all space actors in avoiding such an outcome;
  3. If the event cannot be avoided, based on the last two factors, what evidence would be required to assign fault?
  4. What would be the difficulties of entering that evidence into legal proceedings?
  5. What are the responsibilities to all parties for the continued existence of risk arising from the collision event?

The Space Law Games represent the first holistic attempt to model a collision in conjunction with legal experts. In answering the aforementioned questions, the Space Law Games will provide an optimal model for the way in which collisions in orbit could be either prevented or litigated. The project will look beyond the conclusions of the stimulations and proceedings to explore the third and fourth order effects of the events on subsequent regulatory developments.

Mert Evirgen

1Brian Weeden, ‘2009 Iridium-Cosmos Collision Fact Sheet’ (Secure World Foundation, 10 November 2010) <https://swfound.org/media/6575/swf_iridium_cosmos_collision_fact_sheet_updated_2012.pdf> accessed 14 October 2019

2The 1972 Treaty on Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (Herein referred to as the Liability Convention or LC) was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN by virtue of Resolution 2777 (XXVI) and was opened for signature on 29 March 1972. It entered into force on 1 September 1972. It can be found here: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introliability-convention.html

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