1 Sep 2023

From space junk to international treaties: NZ's only specialised space lawyer

From Nine To Noon, 5:05 pm on 1 September 2023
Maria Pozza is New Zealand's only specialised space lawyer.

Dr Maria Pozza is New Zealand's only specialised space lawyer. Photo: University of Otago

Dr Maria Pozza is exploring a frontier of outer space that not many have ventured into before.

She is the country's only specialised space lawyer - dealing with the contractual obligations of those leaving earth for both commercial and military intelligence purposes.

There's no shortage of work these days but international law in this realm is still not clear.

Dr Pozza, the director of Gravity Lawyers, is often fielding calls from international space agencies and legislative development committees.

They can be on a whole range of issues, she said.

"So sometimes I get payload permits or launch licences and I also do quite a lot of work though in legal compliance, so that's looking at space debris mitigation plans."

Satellite monitoring agreements and biodiversity monitoring and detection might also cross her desk, she said.

"We use satellites for all sorts of biodiversity monitoring and as technology advances we're going to get better at doing this."

She will be speaking at this year's International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists, to be held in Auckland next month.

Space junk

Space junk was one of the issues currently being seen at the international level, she said.

The nation or nations which launched an object into space hold liability at the international law level, she said.

"So if there's a piece of space junk, and let's say it were to reenter the Earth and wash up on Australia's beaches as recently happened, then we utilise a register that's held at the international level and we're able to then determine through various codes that might be on that piece of space junk who owns it.

"There's obligations under international law that the nation who finds that bit of space junk must return it to the launching nation, or who it belongs to."

Dr Pozza said it was likely that we would see even more space junk but she was heartened that many groups and United Nations bodies at the international level were looking at the issue and how to push better sustainability practices.

In Aotearoa, the Outer Space and High Altitudes Act required applicants to submit a space debris mitigation plan as part of their application, she said.

"So we're going in the right direction but we're seeing a lot more activity in space and we need to keep a really close eye on the potential increase in space junk."

Space debris travelled at a very fast pace so even if it was very small it could potentially cause a lot of damage, she said.

Too much space debris could also cause a security issue because it prevented other nations from accessing outer space, she said.

Where does space start?

Under international law there was no real demarcation that states could rely on when trying to define space versus aviation.

Aviation law was part of a nation's sovereign claim when considering the sky, she said.

"So when you have an aeroplane flying through various nations, aeroplanes will call ahead and ask for permission to fly through - they will usually say maybe 'we're a commercial airline and we're flying through with passengers'. They get access to those other nation's air space to continue their flight path."

But space could not be claimed by a nation and was open to anyone who could get there, she said.

There was a problem in determining the line between where aviation and sovereign air space ended and where outer space began, she said.

The space law in Aotearoa did deal with outer space activities which  usually meant rockets, but it also had high altitude licences which dealt with things like high altitude drones or balloons which were at about 60,000 feet, she said.

"So our space act does actually cover those very high altitude areas and beyond.

"But are we still going to see an internationally defined demarcation line? I don't know."

Domestic v international laws

Dr Pozza said it was important to consider that international law applied to nation states, but not usually to private companies or individuals.

"So that means then that if a nation state signs up to a piece of international law, the obligation is on them to ensure that they're complying with their obligations through their own domestic legislation."

New Zealand has space law, while Australia and the United Kingdom have both recently updated their space law, she said.

"But what we can find sometimes is we get differences in domestic jurisdictions obviously through the different types of domestic space law in place."

That could create differences, for example New Zealand had both high altitude licences and outer space licences but in Australia they only had outer space licences, she said.

This meant that nation states might be adhering to their international legal obligations in very different ways, she said.

Private entities that were launching into space were subject to the national laws that were in place in the country that they were launching from to govern their activities in outer space, she said.

"And that would include things like launches, pay loads which may include satellites for example, so they're going to be subject to the national legislation within the launching state."

International law

There are five major multilateral treaties pertaining to outer space which deal with a range of issues such as rescuing astronauts, peaceful purposes in space and no sovereign claim or no appropriation of space.

"They're very very broad, they deal with a lot of things and they also address liability of nations when things go wrong," Dr Pozza.

But she said those international treaties were drafted during the Cold War and so were subject to Cold War constraints.

"For example we don't have very good definitions in those treaties as to what does and what does not a peaceful use of outer space."

There was an argument the treaties needed to be updated with emerging technologies changing the way that space was used, she said.

"We're seeing a lot more space actors, not just nations though, we're also seeing a lot more private entities that wish to utilise space."

But it was very difficult and long winded process to implement international law due to the number of countries that had to be consulted, she said.

There was more reliance on "soft law" because it was so difficult to get international laws through and that included things like the European Union's code of conduct on space debris or regulations put through by UN organisations, she said.