Sunderland takes law study to the final frontier

April 8, 2010

It is one small step for a student, but a giant leap for the University of Sunderland.

Starting in September, law students at the institution can choose to study space law as part of their undergraduate degree.

The module will cover ownership of space property and dealing with criminal behaviour in space, and may even consider how space wars should be regulated.

With increasing numbers of space missions taking place, the problems posed by space vehicles, damaged property and lunar real estate will also be covered.

Chris Newman, senior lecturer in the department of law, will teach the module, which he said represented an important development in legal theory.

"It grabs the attention, but it is quite a serious area of law," he said.

"Fifteen years ago, nobody would have thought about doing law and the internet. We're hoping to get one step ahead."

Mr Newman's own area of academic interest is criminal conduct in outer space.

"For the past 50 years there have been a group of highly selected, highly trained individuals in space.

"Now we are approaching the era of space tourism. We are going from an environment with highly regulated, highly ordered individuals to anybody with enough cash having access," he said.

"The expansion of human behaviour and of the human race into space is going to call for an expansion of the regulatory framework."

Commercial and political issues will also be covered by the module, Mr Newman said. As space exploration is typified by international collaboration, the law must find ways to deal with such issues, he added.

Ken Pounds, emeritus professor of space physics at the University of Leicester, said Sunderland should be "congratulated" for setting up the course.

"Sooner or later, humans will move into space, with a permanent presence on the Moon, and exploratory missions to asteroids, Mars and perhaps the moons of Jupiter or Saturn," Professor Pounds said.

"The objectives will initially be science-driven, but commercial exploitation could quickly follow exploration. At each stage, a legal framework will be essential."

Professor Pounds suggested that something similar to the series of international agreements on Antarctica would be required to govern the final frontier.

But, he added, such an agreement would need strengthening once commercial activity takes off.

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