The European Space Agency (ESA) is a prominent actor in the field of space law, owed to both its legal nature as an international organisation and its purpose as a space agency. Shortly after ESA’s establishment in 1975, the ESA Council decided to accept the rights and obligations provided for in three of the five UN space treaties, the Rescue and Return Agreement, the Liability Convention and the Registration Convention, making ESA the first international organisation to use this mechanism provided for in those treaties.
To implement the treaty obligations, and even go beyond the perimeters set forth by international law in the pursuit to act as a dutiful member of the international community, ESA is carefully shaping its internal legal framework in full compliance with international space law. This includes both rules and regulations approved by the ESA Council, for example on the Agency’s third-party liability, and administrative instructions issued by the ESA Director General. ESA’s policy on space debris mitigation for Agency projects is an instruction that sets forth the technical and procedural requirements for space debris mitigation, effectively adopting the corresponding ECSS standard. Similarly, ESA’s policy on space object registration specifies internal procedures responding to the obligations of Articles II and IV of the Registration Convention through a dedicated, binding act, and led to the establishment of a state-of-the-art space object registry that is coupled with ESA’s technical space object database, DISCOS. Other examples are a re-entry safety framework, a detailed frequency management process, a planetary protection policy and a set of nuclear power sources safety requirements. Finally, ESA, together with its international partners, implements space law obligations in bilateral or multilateral space cooperation projects.
While the UN space treaties form the international legal basis for space activities, they are complemented by national space laws. The latter are on the rise in the wake of the new space era; they follow the need for states to regulate non-governmental space activities carried out under their jurisdiction. This process forms part of the relationship between international and national law and can be seen as the continuation, concretion and completion of international space law. ESA assists its Member States, on their request, in the establishment and implementation of national space legislation through legal and technical advice, a role repeatedly endorsed and appreciated by the ESA Council at ministerial level. Several member states have engaged the Agency, benefitting from its expertise related to space law theory and practice, the authorisation and supervision of space activities, the applicability of technical standards and guidelines and the technical assessment of space systems.
ESA therefore not only fosters compliance with space law internally, but also provides legal services at institutional and programmatic level towards its Member States. Complemented by an active role as a permanent observer to the UN COPUOS, the regular exchange and coordination on space law positions among its member states, the engagement in multilateral bodies and the patronage over the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL), ESA’s relation with space law is rich, multi-faceted and positions the Agency to contribute to future developments in this field.