Space Diplomacy: The Annual Session of the COPUOS Legal Subcommittee

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: March 30, 2022; 16:40 ♦ (Vindobona)

Space is an important future avenue for exploration, research, and commerce. This makes it all the more important for the nations of the world to negotiate these unlimited possibilities and to work out cooperation through diplomatic channels. One of them is the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) of the United Nations Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). The COPUOS organizes a Legal Subcommittee which is held this week.

The Legal Subcommittee is held annually and questions legal issues related to the exploration and use of outer space. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Marques / CC BY 2.0

Space offers endless possibilities for humanity, and as the space economy has gained a foothold in the broader community since SpaceX and BlueOrigin, such conferences as COPUOS Legal Subcommittee take on newfound importance.

In 1959, the General Assembly established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). As the only committee of the General Assembly devoted to exploring and using outer space for peaceful purposes, the Committee has evolved alongside technological advancements in space exploration, geopolitical changes, and the forward-looking use of space science and technology for sustainable development.

In Vienna the Committee meets annually to discuss space-related issues. COPUOS membership has continued to grow since its founding.

As part of its mandate, the Committee is also expected to support efforts at the national, regional, and global levels. International space-related institutions and entities within the United Nations system can work together to maximize the benefits of space science and technology. The Committee's overall aim is to enhance global cooperation in space at all levels by increasing coherence and synergy.

What is the Legal Subcomittee?

In the Legal Subcommittee, questions related to the exploration and use of outer space are discussed every year. Several subjects are covered, including the status and application of the five United Nations treaties on outer space. These include the definition and delimitation of outer space, national space legislation, and legal mechanisms for mitigating space debris. The course will also examine international mechanisms for peaceful exploration and use of outer space.

Other topics discussed are an exchange of views on potential legal models for activities in the exploration, exploitation and utilization of space resources, legal aspects of space traffic management and the utilization of the geostationary orbit. Therefore, many countries are stressing the importance of promoting an international legal regime that is governing space activities.

Exploitation and utilization of space resources

The resources in space are almost infinite, from water, minerals, precious metals and possibly new elements and ways to use these raw materials. Many countries of the world are interested to make these raw materials usable for themselves in the future. So it is not surprising that this is an important topic in space diplomacy and at this year's COPUOS Legal Subcommittee.

Using space-based resources - whether on the Moon, asteroids, or elsewhere - is vital for the long-term viability of space activities, the United States emphasized.

To increase human and robotic presence substantially in the solar system, resources that are already outside Earth's gravity well will need to be utilized.

Private companies collected Lunar regolith from the Moon on behalf of NASA. The agency offered to buy some of it. NASA has given away many lunar samples before, including to many COPUOS member states, but this is the first time space resources have been purchased or sold. Lunar samples collected by the Soviet Union have also been sold privately. In any case, NASA's recent offer is an opportunity to begin working through practical issues related to space resources.

The U.S. Head of Delegation Emily Pierce said in her statement, "The long-standing view of the United States is that the utilization of space-based resources – including commercial utilization – is consistent with the four main United Nations space treaties. The Outer Space Treaty shapes how space resource utilization activities may be carried out, but it does not broadly preclude such activities."

Currently, the United States of America believe there is an urgent need to ensure that all nations engaged in space resource activities have a common set of fundamental beliefs: the rule of law, transparency, and peaceful purposes. As a starting point for future work on space resources, the Artemis Accords underscore these key principles.

There are international agreements called the Artemis Accords between governments taking part in the Artemis Program, an American-led mission aiming to return humans to the moon by 2025 to extend space exploration.

The Accords, drafted by NASA and the U.S. Department of State, establish a framework for cooperation in civil exploration and peaceful use of the Moon, Mars, and other astronomical objects. The conventions are explicitly grounded in the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which the signatories are bound to uphold, and cite most of the major U.N.-brokered space agreements.

The Accords were signed on 13 October 2020 by representatives of the Government agencies responsible for space exploration in eight countries: Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States.

The Permanent Representative of the UK assured in her speech that: "By signing the Artemis Accords, the UK is joining international partners to agree a common set of principles which will guide space exploration for years to come. The Artemis Accords will ensure a shared understanding of safe operations, use of space resources, minimizing space debris and sharing scientific data.

Corinne Kitsell, Ambassador and UK Permanent Representative in Vienna said in her statement, "It is our view that a cohesive international approach to the registration of space objects will provide a key foundation for developing international approaches to proximity missions as well as constellations and the utilization of space resources."

To find out why we need space diplomacy as a foreign policy tool to keep outer space safe, secure, and sustainable, click here.

Legal aspects of space traffic management

Space traffic management is an important issue in space affairs and was rightly a topic at this year's COPUOS Legal Subcommittee. Space traffic management consists of efforts to ensure a safe journey to and from outer space, as well as the return to Earth from outer space, free from physical or radio-frequency interference. As well as launch vehicles, space traffic includes orbiting objects such as satellites of all sizes and the International Space Station.

A major concern for space debris proliferation is that collisions with debris can lead to the destruction of spacecraft and other assets in space. The infrastructure today in Space, with all its satellites and communication, is vital for Earth's economy, infrastructure on the ground, and the way of life in the 21st century.

U.S. Head of Delegation Emily Pierce elaborated in her speech that the U.S. will continue, "international dialogue and coordination of efforts by the Member States to provide space traffic coordination services can also support broader efforts by the Committee to strengthen global governance of space activities. In this regard, the United States will continue to engage the international community to uphold and strengthen a rules-based international order for space. The United States, working with commercial industry, allies, and partners, will promote the implementation of existing measures and lead in the development of new measures that contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities."

As part of its work on the formation of open, transparent, and credible standards, policies, and practices, the United States will work closely with industry, academia, and international partners. As part of its efforts to increase situational awareness and coordinate space traffic, the United States shares traffic coordination information.

The UK underlined in a statement that: "UK launch, the UK National Space Strategy highlights the commitment to position the UK at the forefront of modern regulation for novel space activities whilst keeping space sustainable, safe and secure." The UK is advancing its law practices in space to ensure the legal issues and space traffic management with best practices.

UK missions that involve debris removal, servicing, refueling, and assembly technologies in orbit are discussed. The UK aims to bring together industry, academia, and government to ensure the country's readiness to encounter the opportunities of the future space economy.

As Ms. Kitsell said in her speech, "The UK sees the importance of these activities to contribute to the sustainability of space, utilizing technology to extend the life of satellites in orbit and by removing hazardous debris. For such missions to be successful, close international collaboration is vital as well as transparency about activities within the international community."


During the meeting, the topic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine also came up. The EU delegation left together with other delegates from the U.S. and UK the meeting to send a signal against the Russian accusations against Ukraine as well as the Russian invasion.

The UK Ambassador condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of her speech: "The United Kingdom appreciates that whilst we are here to talk about the peaceful uses of space, we cannot and should not ignore violations of international law when they occur on Earth. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is an unprovoked, premeditated attack against a sovereign democratic state. The UK and our international partners stand united in condemning the Russian government’s reprehensible actions, which are an egregious violation of international law including the UN Charter."

Russia accuses the West of politicizing and exploiting space. According to Russia, the West misuses the unique technical ground of the 61 Session of the COPUOS Legal Subcommittee.

United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs

U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna

UK Mission to the United Nation in Vienna

Delegation of the European Union to the International Organisations in Vienna

Explained: Why We Need Space Diplomacy as a Foreign Policy Tool to Keep Outer Space Safe, Secure and Sustainable