What happens if you break the law in space - and 3 times people or governments have tested the rules

What happens if you break the law in space – and 3 times people or governments have tested the rules

  • In 1967, 112 nations signed the Outer Space Treaty which laid the foundations of international space law.
  • There are no known cases of anyone being accused of committing a crime in space.
  • But there are three notable moments when people or governments tested the rules.

Despite the popular conception of space as a lawless frontier, it turns out that you’re still beholden to the authorities when you leave Earth.

There are no known cases of anyone being charged with a crime committed in outer space. But as space becomes increasingly accessible, the illegal behaviors that regularly occur on Earth will likely accompany humans soaring through the cosmos.

Yet the laws on the books are decades old and difficult to enforce. In 1967, over 100 nations signed the Outer Space Treaty – essentially, the Magna Carta of space law. The document is heavy on the main principles, but light on the details.

Generally speaking, it states that space should be free for use by all nations and that celestial bodies like the moon should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

It also prohibits a nation from claiming outer space and celestial bodies. That’s why Congress passed legislation in November 1969 affirming that the Apollo 11 mission planting a flag on the moon was “a symbolic gesture of national pride in the achievement”, not that the United States claimed it.

Although the treaty is difficult to enforce, if a country, individual or company violates the guidelines — for example, launching a nuclear weapon into space or planting a flag on an asteroid and calling it its own — other space nations could sanction them. .

The signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967.

Leaders of space nations signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967.

The United Nations

While there are no known criminal charges in the space or convictions to date, that could change with more commercial and private players in the space.

On June 23, Canadian lawmakers passed legislation that would allow the government to indict Canadian astronauts for crimes committed on the moon.

From destructive missile tests to missing a tax deadline to go on a last-minute mission, here’s how space law has been tested so far.

This telescope image shows debris from the Cosmos 1408 debris cloud shortly after it was destroyed by impact with the Russian anti-satellite weapon.  The image was taken on November 15, 2021

This telescope image shows debris from Cosmos 1408 after it was destroyed by the Russian anti-satellite weapon on November 15, 2021.

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The law: The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that parties must conduct all their activities in outer space “with due regard” to other space parties

How it was tested: Russia deliberately destroyed its own satellite, creating long-lived orbital debris that puts surrounding satellites and crewed space stations at risk

Several governments have tested anti-satellite weapons that leave behind trails of space debris in orbit.

In November 2021, Russia carried out an anti-satellite weapon test that deliberately hit Cosmos 1408, one of its own satellites, which had been unusable for years. The defunct satellite exploded into thousands of pieces that continue to orbit Earth, raising the risk that the debris could one day damage satellites or manned vehicles.

On October 24, the International Space Station (ISS) had to move to dodge space junk from the Russian Cosmos 1408 satellite, according to NASA.

Various forms of anti-satellite testing have been conducted since 1959 by the United States, Russia, China and India, according to a database compiled by the Secure World Foundation. Last year, the United States became the first space nation to declare a ban on anti-satellite weapons testing.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain, a member of International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 58/59, gestures as she boards the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft shortly before launch at the Cosmodrome of Baikonur, leased by Russia, in Kazakhstan, December 3, 2018.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain on December 3, 2018. Although she was later cleared, McClain was accused of committing the first crime in space in 2019.


The law: Identity theft and improper access to private financial records

How it was tested: A NASA astronaut has been accused of accessing his ex-wife’s bank account while living on the ISS

In 2019, NASA astronaut Anne McClain was accused of committing the first crime in space.

During McClain’s stay aboard the ISS from December 2018 to June 2019, the American astronaut’s ex-wife accused McClain of using a NASA-affiliated computer to illegally log into her personal bank accounts , reported the New York Times.

The ISS has its own intergovernmental agreement which the partner countries of the project signed in 1998. It stipulates that each country involved in the ISS has criminal jurisdiction over its own personnel in space, as long as the victim is not a individual from another country who is also in space.

NASA defended McClain’s reputation before launching an investigation into the incident – ultimately concluding the allegations against McClain were false. McClain’s ex-wife, who filed the charges with the Federal Trade Commission, was later charged with two counts of making false statements to federal authorities.

Jack Swigert in an astronaut costume, before forgetting to declare his taxes.

Jack Swigert in an astronaut costume in 1970, the same year he forgot to file his taxes before going on a mission.


The law: US tax law

How it was tested: An Apollo astronaut missed the April 15 tax filing deadline in the 1970s after flying into space at the last minute

In 1970, Jack Swigert, an Apollo 13 astronaut, realized he hadn’t filed his income taxes in time for the April 15 deadline. There was a problem: he was already in space.

Swigert was a last-minute addition to the Apollo 13 crew. Because he had to scramble after another astronaut was medically disqualified from the mission, he didn’t file his taxes before leaving.

“Oh oh; did you file your tax return?” Swigert requested mission control, according to the official NASA transcript. Mission Control burst out laughing, to which Swigert replied, “It’s not too funny; things happened really fast there, and I need an extension.”

In the end, Swigert got an extension from the Internal Revenue Service because he was technically “out of the country.”

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