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50th anniversary of Outer Space Treaty a prompt for revisions

January 27, 2017 - UNITED NATIONS

The Outer Space Treaty opened for signatures 50 years ago, and the anniversary will expose the Cold War relic to a new round of scrutiny. The main question is whether it offers protection against 21st Century realities, which include the exploitation of Space and threats to the satellites that are now vital to warfare and everyday life on Earth.

The treaty was written to ensure the peaceful use of Space and came into force on Oct 10, 1967. In the words of the U.S. Department of Defense, the pact sought to prevent "a new form of colonial competition and the possible damage that self-seeking exploitation might cause."

Fifty years on, there are many more players looking to exploit Space. In 1967 the negotiations involved only a handful of spacefaring powers and today's realities were in the realm of science fiction. Today, systems located in Space play a massive part in terrestrial military and non-military operations: from reconnaissance to GPS, to communications.

An article in Nature News on the 40th anniversary observes that the treaty remains in force, but looks increasingly vulnerable as a protection against the militarisation of Space. It cites the findings of a United Nations conference in 2007 that concluded military uses of Space "are well underway and likely to expand."

The treaty has no protection against the commercial exploitation of Space. Private entities have joined governments in sizing up asteroids and other space property for the presumed abundance of volatiles, water and metals in them, and for eventual occupation. Within as little as 20 years, according to many experts, these pursuits will begin raising questions - with possible hostilities - concerning property rights and sovereignty in Space. Previous calls for revisions haven't prospered: there is no sign today's players are willing to discuss restrictions on their dreams.

Time to rethink the Outer Space Treaty (Nature News 4 Oct 2007)

A fight to protect 'the most valuable real estate in space' (WP 9 May 2016)

Asteroid Mining May Be a Reality by 2025 (Space.com 11 Aug 2015)

Date written/update: 2016-06-03