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The Outer Space Treaty, also known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies(that title tells you why it was shortened to the Outer Space treaty), forms the basis of international space law. The treaty was opened for signature in the United States, the U.K, and the former Soviet Union on January 27, 1967. It went into force on October 10, 1967. As of 1 January 2008, 98 countries have ratified the treaty, while another 27 have signed, but not completed ratification process.
The Outer Space Treaty has many key points. Among them, its signers from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, on the Moon or any other celestial body, or anywhere in space. It limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for weapons testing, conducting military exercises, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications. The Treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. The treaty also states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and shall be free for exploration and use by all. It forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource. It states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”. It also says that a country is liable for damages caused by their space objects and must avoid contaminating space and celestial bodies. Essentially granting greater protection to space than we have allocated for Earth.
While this article only points out a few parts of the treaty, it was a document with a great utopian vision. The Outer Space Treaty is still in force and has been improved and strengthened, but is only as good as intentions can get. It really has no teeth or methods of recourse.
We have written many articles about the Outer Space Treaty for Universe Today. Here’s an article about what if a child is born on the Moon, and here’s an article about the ambassador to visiting aliens.
We’ve also recorded a series of episodes of Astronomy Cast about every planet in the Solar System. Start here, Episode 49: Mercury.