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The Outer Space Treaty

Created in 1966 by the United Nations, the Outer Space Treaty is a framework of laws that governs intergalactic activities. Yes, this sounds like something the crew of Black Mirror's USS Callister conjured up, but it is real and in effect today. Countries must abide by these laws when exploring the depths of space and conducting experiments. The treaty has nine key principles:

  1. Space exploration must be conducted in the interest of all mankind.

  2. Outer space is free for all States to explore. ‘States’ is just a fancy way of saying countries and/or governing bodies.

  3. Space cannot be claimed or appropriated by individual States.

  4. Outer space and celestial bodies cannot be used to position or store weapons of mass destruction.

  5. Celestial bodies are only to be used for peaceful purposes.

  6. States are responsible for the activities of their government or non-governmental organizations in space.

  7. States are liable for any and all damages caused by objects they send into outer space.

  8. Astronauts are to be considered ambassadors for all mankind.

  9. States must avoid contaminating other celestial bodies.

The last principle refers to organic, earth-bound microbes that could contaminate another planet’s environment. In order to prevent contamination, probes designed to land on the surface of celestial bodies must be sterilized before departure. This process is far more complex than dousing the equipment in Purell... but it is essentially the same thing.

Sterilization is not required if the probe is designed to stay in orbit. However, the disposal of orbiting probes must be conducted within the terms of the treaty. For example, after 20 years of observing Saturn’s rings, icy moons and methane rivers, the Cassini probe was purposefully hurled into the planet’s atmosphere and destroyed. Scientists couldn’t risk the equipment crashing into one of Saturn’s six orbiting moons, which are considered likely environments for life.

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