What happens if someone commits a crime in space?

According to international law, no nation can own outer space. This raises questions about criminal jurisdiction. If someone commits a crime in space, who prosecutes? Is it possible to commit crime in space at all, or is everything legal beyond Earth’s boundaries?

What happens if someone commits a crime on the ISS?

At the moment, if a crime is committed in space, it’s likely to be aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Of course, that’s not because the astronauts on the ISS are particularly inclined to crime; it’s just that the ISS is one of only two permanently crewed objects in space, the other being the Chinese space station Tiangong. It would be much harder for crimes to take place on Jupiter, where there’s nobody to commit them.

The laws of the ISS are defined by the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), a treaty signed on 29 January 1998 by the nations involved in the ISS project. Article 22, which deals with criminal jurisdiction, lays out the following rules:

  1. Nations have jurisdiction over their nationals. For example, if a US citizen is accused of a crime aboard the ISS, the US justice system will deal with the accusation, unless other nations are involved; see below.
  2. If an ISS astronaut from one country harms a person from another country, the victim’s country can consult with the perpetrator’s country about how prosecution should be handled. If the perpetrator’s country agrees, the victim’s country can take over jurisdiction. The victim’s country can also handle the case if, 90 days after the consultation, the perpetrator’s country hasn’t provided assurance that it will handle prosecution. For example, if a British astronaut hits a Canadian astronaut, the case may be handled by either the UK or, if the UK and Canada agree, by Canada. Canada can also handle the case if the UK takes too long to express its intention to prosecute.
  3. If an incident happens in (or damages) a module owned by another nation, the module’s owner state can, again, consult with the perpetrator’s country on prosecution, and can take over prosecution under the same circumstances as point 2. So, if the British astronaut punches the Canadian astronaut in a Russian section of the ISS, Russia may also be able to prosecute.

In other words, it’s absolutely possible to prosecute a crime committed aboard the ISS, and it can be prosecuted by a number of different parties: the perpetrator’s country, the victim’s country (if there’s a victim), or the country that owns the part of the ISS in which the crime took place.

Different parts of the ISS are governed by the law of the country that owns that part of the ISS. For example, Japanese law reigns in the Japanese Experiment Module. In addition, astronauts are bound by the laws of their own country, so a British astronaut in the Japanese Experiment Module should follow both UK and Japanese law.

What happens if someone commits a crime on a spaceship?

What are the laws if you’re on a rocket or spaceship, rather than on the ISS? Article 8 of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is relevant here:

A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body.

This is similar to the legal situation in international waters, also known as the high seas.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dictates that ‘No state may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty’, much like the Outer Space Treaty’s declaration that no nation can own any part of outer space. However, seafaring ships are subject to the laws of the nation where the ship is registered, so you can’t freely violate British law if you’re on a UK-registered ship in international waters.

The Outer Space Treaty’s stipulation that states retain jurisdiction over anything launched while registered with that state, and over any personnel aboard, suggests that space law operates in the same way. If you’re aboard a UK-registered rocket when it’s launched into space, you’re expected to abide by UK law, and the UK can prosecute you if you attempt any space crimes.

What happens if someone commits a crime on the moon?

What if an astronaut commits a crime on the moon, or in the void of space? That raises some more complicated questions.

Legally, no nation can own the moon or outer space. The moon is not part of Spain, for example, so Spain has no right to apply Spanish law to everyone who walks on the moon.

However, the doesn’t mean that people on the moon are completely unbound by law. By claiming extraterritorial jurisdiction, nations can impose laws on their nationals outside the nation’s borders. So Spain could claim the right to prosecute a Spanish person who broke Spanish law on the moon.

Nations can also claim the right to prosecute crimes committed against their nationals beyond their territory. The US criminal code specifies that the jurisdiction of the United States extends to ‘Any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense by or against a national of the United States’, so a stateless person on the moon could still be prosecuted for harming a US astronaut.

While you could probably get into trouble for moon crimes regardless of your nationality, Canada has removed any ambiguity for its astronauts. An amendment to Canada’s Civil Lunar Gateway Agreement Implementation Act specifically states that Canadian astronauts can be prosecuted for violating Canadian law on the moon:

a Canadian crew member who, during a space flight, commits an act or omission outside Canada that if committed in Canada would constitute an indictable offence is deemed to have committed that act or omission in Canada, if that act or omission is committed … on the surface of the Moon.

Like outer space, Antarctica is not owned by any one nation and has no permanent residents. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty specifies that nations have jurisdiction over their own nationals if a crime is committed in Antarctica, and it’s possible we’ll eventually see a similar provision written into international space law.

Has anyone committed a crime in space?

Eventually, we’ll probably see a practical test of how criminal law works in space. For now, though, the title of ‘first space criminal’ hasn’t yet been claimed.

In 2019, a NASA astronaut faced an allegation that she had improperly accessed her former spouse’s bank account from the International Space Station. However, an investigation cleared the astronaut of wrongdoing. Both the astronaut and her former spouse were American, and the alleged crime took place in an American part of the ISS, so, if the case had gone to trial, it would have been the responsibility of the US courts.

When crime eventually makes its way into space, it’ll present some interesting challenges for the legal system. Even if a crime in space can theoretically be prosecuted, it may be difficult to investigate. At the moment, getting into space is extremely expensive and can’t be done at short notice, which means that professional investigators probably won’t be flying to space-based crime scenes any time soon.

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