Space shuttle Atlantis soars to orbit.
PHOTO: As more private companies launch into space, the world is starting to wonder who’s regulating it. (Supplied: Kenny Allen/NASA)
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In January, United States company Swarm Technology succeeded in launching their prototype satellites — each smaller than a loaf of bread — into orbit.
With hundreds of satellites launched every year, Swarm’s success would have been otherwise unremarkable, except for one fact: they had been denied launch approval by US authorities.
The company went ahead anyway.
Professor Melissa de Zwart, the dean of law at Adelaide University Law School, said Swarm took the not unusual step of going through a broker in order to launch.
“Nobody seems to be able to quite explain why or how, the launch actually happened from India,” she said.
Swarm’s satellites have the potential to damage others that make up the global communications network orbiting Earth, and other objects in the increasingly crowded territory of low earth orbit.
But working out who would be liable in such a scenario opens up more questions than answers.
The limits of space law
Swarm’s activities are part of a growing commercial focus on space, with some companies interested in satellite technology and others wanting to mine resources on asteroids, or even the Moon.
The launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy earlier this year, which included a dummy payload of a red Tesla Roadster bound for Mars, demonstrated the increasing speed of the new space race.
Even Australia is looking to get in on the act, with the Federal Government currently revising the Space Activities Act 1998 and announcing in 2017 the launch of a space agency.