New Zealand Law Society - Space law expert says law needs to be clear on Mars colonisation

Space law expert says law needs to be clear on Mars colonisation

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A Waikato University law lecturer says a legal framework needs to be established as plans are being hatched to land on and colonise Mars.

Anna Marie Brennan is teaching the country’s first university paper on space law at Waikato’s Te Piringa - Faculty of Law.

New Zealand is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which says that no state or person can claim ownership of a celestial body. But Dr Brennan says the Treaty is decades old, and potentially outdated. She says the whole concept of the governance of Mars raises intriguing legal questions, but the need to find legislative answers is increasingly pressing.

With companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic all eyeing up Mars with the aim of setting up bases there within in a decade, Dr Brennan says there’s nothing to stop them creating human habitats on Mars, even if they can’t technically claim sovereignty.  

“At the same time you have questions about who would govern a habitat there. Is it us Earthlings, or do we govern at arm's length? How do we safeguard the environment on Mars as well? You could make an argument the Outer Space Treaty is out of date, because it is private corporations at the forefront of the space race today, rather than countries.”

Technically, she adds, anyone wishing to establish a space station would have to go through the Secretary General of the United Nations. But while he or she has to be notified, they can’t actually stop a company from going ahead with their plans.

Dr Brennan says legal points need to be established before a mission to colonise Mars ever takes off.

“Even if you do develop the legal framework, because Mars is a hostile environment it’s not possible to foresee every scenario. So we face further issues about whether the law should be developed slowly and incrementally over time.”