Who Owns Space?

The international laws that govern outer space haven’t caught up with our ability to explore it.

Our weather, our communications, our financial markets, and even our GPS systems are monitored by a network of satellites orbiting Earth. Yet we rarely think about proprietary rights above our atmosphere. The team at BBC’s iWonder commissioned this short film animated by Mark Ovenden to explain the complicated and sometimes elusive question of who actually owns space.

In some ways, the dilemma is not unike one we faced before, beginning in the 16th century, when similar questions arose about the rights to waterways, newly charted trade routes, and unmapped landmasses. As more countries headed to space, the United Nations drew up the Outer Space Treaty in the late 1960s, which bans any government from putting weapons of mass destruction into space or installing them on the moon.

That treaty, however, doesn’t limit the use of conventional weapons in space, nor does it address the growing commercial space industry. As more privately owned businesses begin using space to launch mining operations and explore new sources of energy, it’s become clear these outdated laws have not kept up.

Companies like Virgin Galactic may soon send private citizens into orbit and beyond. Who will govern those trips? And how do we prevent the “final frontier” from becoming another land grab?