space law

Dennis Burnett, right, president of the University of Nebraska Space Law advisory board and adjunct professor at NU, announces a nonprofit corporation to raise funds to help students wanting to study space law. With him are, from second right, Matthew Schaefer, professor and Space Law founding director; Elsbeth Magilton, NU Space Law executive director; and Ryan Noble, attorney with Oneweb. 

WASHINGTON — An unidentified spacecraft sidles up to a sensitive U.S. intelligence satellite.

Maybe the craft is from Russia or China. Maybe it’s preparing to jam the satellite or eavesdrop on its top-secret communications.

Can the American military demand that the craft declare its intentions? Try to prevent its approach? Blow it out of the sky?

These are the kinds of questions experts are wrestling with as they draft a document called the Woomera Manual, an attempt to lay out how the law should be applied to military activities in space.

The manual takes its name from Australia’s Woomera township, the launch site for that country’s first satellite.

It’s an initiative spearheaded by a group of universities that includes the University of Nebraska College of Law, which has developed a specialty in space law.

“This is all about the pursuit of peace, because no one stands to lose as much as the United States, and an armed conflict in space could be devastating and catastrophic,” Nebraska law professor Jack Beard said recently. “So in times of tension, you’d rather have clearer rules to follow.”

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Beard was speaking at the NU College of Law’s 12th annual conference on space law, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Panels at the conference dealt with topics ranging from the legal aspects of commercial space activities to rules governing telecommunications in space.

The last session of the day focused on the Woomera Manual, which is supposed to be finished in 2020 and will examine what nations can and can’t do in space, as well as the gray zones where they have wiggle room.

Space is critically important to the U.S. military, Beard noted.

“All its most significant advantages depend on space,” he said. “They evaporate without space.”

Beard and the other panelists discussed the potential for military misunderstandings in space and how that could lead to unnecessary conflicts.

And they talked about applying existing laws to the new domain in an effort to safeguard civilian populations and shield neutral states.

Elsbeth Magilton, executive director of the NU College of Law’s space, cyber and telecommunications law programs, also provided an update at the conference about a NASA space law education grant.

The college has used that grant to create a space law network that includes paid NASA internships, conference opportunities, and a research and writing workshop.

In an interview, Magilton said the annual conference has been growing year by year.

“There’s lots of space conferences and lots of space events,” Magilton said. “There’s far fewer that are focused on the legal and policy considerations that really help shape what we can and can’t do in space and how we operate in space as a country.”

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