How do law and space meet?

As humans expand off-planet, which laws will govern their activities? Space law is a diverse field and is still largely underdeveloped. There are many areas in which aspiring space lawyers can specialize. In all of these areas, opportunities exist for lawyers to make meaningful contributions. To learn more, we spoke to Danielle Ireland-Piper, a law professor at Bond University in Australia.

What is your background in law and why are you interested in space law?

It’s been a winding road to find my interests in it. I’ve worked in corporate law firms, in political offices, and in government. I also have a PhD and a Master of Laws, both of which focused on international law. International law is at the core of space law, so it’s a natural fit for me in many ways. In addition, I have interests and expertise in international law, comparative constitutional law, transnational criminal law, human rights, and the laws of armed conflict. These interests all relate to space in different ways.

My first exposure to space law specifically, though, was as an undergraduate back in 1999. I participated in a space law moot competition and was fascinated by the fact that there isn’t an accepted legal definition as to where space begins and where airspace ends. This led to a deeper interest in how earthly traditions like law will translate and adapt to outer space. Years later, I had the pleasure of speaking on a conference panel with space lawyers Steven Freeland and Donna Lawler. Their combined enthusiasm and expertise on all things space law was a catalyst for reengaging with space law. My interest is also born of that wonder we all feel when we look up and momentarily grasp the enormity of it all.

What areas of space law are of particular interest to you?

My current work in space law developed from my expertise in criminal jurisdiction over “extraterritorial” conduct, meaning conduct that occurs outside territory. In essence, the development of law was once premised on geographical boundaries, but the interconnectedness of modern life has challenged this premise. In turn, increased human activity in outer space also requires rethinking traditional notions of jurisdiction and legal authority over conduct taking place beyond Earth.

I’m also interested in the implications that activity in space has for human rights law. There are issues around equality of access. Space has relevance for many aspects of our lives, not least because remote sensing technologies can be usefully applied to national security and defense, health, agriculture, environment, disaster management, education, transportation, communication, and humanitarian assistance. Space tourism, space weaponization, and space mining also raise a plethora of important legal issues. Professor Steven Freeland and I are currently recruiting a PhD candidate to study the implication of space activity on human rights law. I am very excited as to see where that research takes us.

What advice do you have for individuals who would like to combine their interests in law and space?

The first thing I did when reengaging with space law was to get myself a copy of “Astronomy for Dummies”. I am only half-joking when I say that. I am a lawyer, not a scientist. In order to understand legal issues in space, however, one should understand something of the scientific pursuits in space (and vice-versa). Space is a burgeoning field and so I’ve also made an effort to engage with the materials being produced across the space sector and to identify leaders in the field. There is a lot of activity in the defense and national security sectors too, so that’s something to watch. I think law and sciences have more to offer each other than we realize. For this reason, learning to speak the “languages” of both disciplines is helpful. Space law is a growing and important field and I think there is certainly a place for space lawyers now and in the future.