National Space Legislation A Necessity for Pakistan

The launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in 1957 is often taken as the first milestone in the history of outer space activities. The initial space exploration was driven by a “Space Race” between the Soviet Union and the United States, two contesting super powers during the Cold War era. During the space race, even before the first satellite was propelled into space, the leadership of these countries had foreseen that the capability to remotely observe military activities around the world from space would be a plus over the adversary. Additionally, the satellites offered armed forces the potential for upgraded communications, navigation, timing, weather observation, and position location. Consequently, both the US and Soviet governments started investing heavily in their military space programs and developed their communication, global positioning, earth observation, intelligence and reconnaissance satellites. Since the dawn of the 21st century, governments realized that observing Earth from space could also provide significant benefits not only to the military forces but also to the general public.

The rapid digitization and advancements in science and technology uncovered various civilian uses of satellites such as weather forecasting, observation of land to gather imagery for crop forecasting, resource management, personal navigation, geology, air-traffic control, maritime navigation and the control of information-transfer networks. Currently, space has transformed life on Earth completely by offering service to fulfill human needs. As a result, various nations started their space program to fulfill their civil and military needs.  These nations are making the best use of space technology and its applications to achieve “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” set by the United Nations to enhance human development. 1

Anticipating the potential in space industry, the private sector also started investing in various space services. The space services being provided by private space sector, generating huge revenue, are telecommunication, navigation, and space travel. The private commercial space activities have flourished even without any financial support by the governments.

Space activities have flourished even without any financial support by the governments.

The extensive use of space for various state-sponsored and commercial activities brought to the forefront serious legal and policy level challenges warranting stringent measures to control and regulate these activities. This realization led to the formulation of legal framework for regulating space activities known as “International Space Law”. This framework is primarily based on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and four successive United Nations treaties. The International Space Law aims at ensuring safety and sustainability of space activities, tackling the problem of space debris, and binding the states to bear responsibilities of all governmental and non-governmental activities conducted from their territory. The space law also prohibits the weaponization of space, especially the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and on celestial bodies, and also limits military activities in space. It also regulates the use of nuclear power sources in space activities.

Since these treaties were concluded at a time when governments were the leading actors in space and commercial space ventures were in their embryonic phase, the issues related to the governing of private and commercial space activities were not addressed in International Space Law. In order to fulfill their national obligations, most of the space-faring nations have formulated their National Space Policies and enacted their national space laws to govern the space activities being conducted from their soil. This enables them to accrue the maximum benefits of the thriving space industry besides safeguarding their national interests.

Pakistan which was the tenth country in the world and fourth in Asia to venture into space, still has neither a “national space policy” nor a “national space legislation”, which perhaps are the two biggest impediments in its progress in this sector.

This paper aims to highlight the need of space legislation for Pakistan to fulfill its obligations imposed by International Space Law and to pursue its national interest. It also discusses the implications of not having national space legislation.

Space Law and its Constituents

United Nations Office for Outer Space Activities (UNOOSA) defines space law as, “The rules, principles, and standards of international law appearing in the five international treaties and five sets of principles administering outer space which have been developed under the auspices of the United Nations.”  These five international treaties are legally binding in nature, while the other five sets of principles are non-binding to the state parties. The treaties set obligations on States to bear international responsibility for their national space activities and are briefly discussed in the following paragraphs:

Outer Space Treaty 1967

The Outer Space Treaty is the first and most significant treaty of International Space Law, as it sets the precedent for further multilateral space legislation and prohibits weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space. This treaty imposes responsibility on states to bear international obligations for their national space undertakings through enacting national space legislation, and other accepted norms of behavior. Other responsibilities mentioned in this treaty are:

  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
Rescue Agreement 1967

As per the agreement “States shall take all possible steps to rescue and assist astronauts in distress and promptly return them to the launching State and that States shall, upon request, provide assistance to launching States in recovering space objects that return to Earth outside the territory of the Launching State.”9

Liability Convention 1971

According to this convention, a launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft, and liable for damage due to its faults in space. The Convention also provides for procedures for the settlement of claims for damages.10

Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space 1975

Being a signatory of this convention, a state bears the responsibility to make a registry that will register the information of every object launched into space.11 

The information includes, “name of launching State, an appropriate designator of the space object or its registration number, date and territory or location of the launch, basic orbital parameters”.12

Moreover, article 4 of this agreement states, “Each state of registry may, from time to time, provide the Secretary-General of the United Nations with additional information concerning a space object carried on its registry.  Each State of registry shall notify the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the greatest extent feasible and as soon as practicable, of space objects concerning which it has previously transmitted information, and which have been but no longer are in earth orbit.”13

Moon Agreement 1979

The agreement states, “The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become feasible.”14

Non-Binding Space Principles

In addition to the five above mentioned agreements, five sets of non-legally binding principles have also been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, namely:  the Declaration of Legal Principles on Outer Space, the International Broadcasting Principles, the Remote Sensing Principles, Nuclear Power Sources Principles, and Declaration on International Cooperation. Additionally, the United Nations has also promulgated some guidelines related to Debris Mitigation and Safety Framework for Nuclear Power Source. Realizing both the importance of nuclear power sources and their hazardous nature, the United Nations General Assembly approved some recommendations for the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) “to formally consider the technical aspects of and safety measures relating to the use of nuclear power sources in outer space.”15

After considering those recommendations, “Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space (NPS Principles)” were affirmed by the General Assembly in 1992. Following these principles, the member states will inform Secretary-General about the safety arrangements and assessments taken before sending the nuclear-powered satellite into space.16

These international space legal instruments together with relevant United Nations General Assembly resolutions constitute (international) space law.

National Legislation

To meet the obligations imposed by the above-mentioned international space law, most of the space-faring nations have enacted their space legislations. These act as a mechanism to implement international obligations of states at the national level and to make sure that private, commercial, and non-governmental entities conducting space activities, act in accordance with International Space Law.  Apart from implementing international space laws, various space-faring nations have enacted their national legal and regulatory frameworks to oversee their commercial space activities. Depending upon their peculiar needs and priorities, states have adopted different approaches while formulating their national space legislations. According to UNOOSA’s database, 25 countries including United States, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Austria, Russia, and China have their national space laws.17

Pakistan’s Space Program

Pakistan started its space journey back in 1961 when a Space Sciences Research Wing of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission named Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was instituted through a presidential ordinance.19 In 1962, with the launching of Rehbar-I, Pakistan became the tenth country in the world and the fourth country in Asia to conduct the launching of a two-staged rocket.20

SUPARCO has been endeavoring to develop its own totally indigenous satellite, since the late 80s. As a result, two experimental satellites, Badr-121  and Badr-B22  were developed, albeit with partial success.

Conversely, until now, not a single operational satellite has been indigenously developed. Currently, there are 03 operational satellites (namely, PAKSAT-1R23 , MM-124 , and PRSS-125), all developed/procured and launched from foreign agencies. The fourth experimental satellite PAKTES-126, for test and evaluation purposes, has been mostly developed and integrated in Pakistan; but its payload has been procured from a foreign source.

In 2011, the National Space Program 204027 , also known as Vision 2040, was approved. The program includes the replacement of Pakistan’s existing satellites with five geostationary equatorial orbits (GEO) satellites and six low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The satellites under this program will provide communication and remote sensing services, and will be launched from China’s the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.28

A brief analysis of Pakistan’s space program reveals that despite making an early start, Pakistan has lagged behind in space technology, space sciences, and space applications. It lacks requisite capabilities in indigenous development of satellites, launch systems, and ground stations.

It has limited number of space professionals and skilled manpower which is crucial for a thriving and self-sustaining space program. It has not been able to capitalize on the commercial gains offered by space-related technology and its applications. Most importantly, it has been unable to build its capacity to make the profitable use of space-related applications, for its socio-economic growths.

Though there are a number of reasons attributed to Pakistan’s below par performance in the space sector. Absence of national space policy and national space legislation have greatly inhibited its progress in this sector. Despite being a State Party to most of the UN space treaties and agreements, Pakistan neither has national space legislation to fulfill its international obligations nor any legal framework to regulate various developmental and commercial space-related activities. This is primarily due to the fact that the constitution of Pakistan does not address space as such, and SUPARCO lacks constitutional and legal mandate to regulate and control national space activities and to implement space policies.29

Implications of not having National Space Law

As an emerging space-faring nation, Pakistan will face serious consequences both internationally and domestically, if it does not pursue national space law-making to address its legal incapacities in space sector and to follow international space law. Internationally, the developed space faring nations will endeavor to maintain their control over space by making their laws rigorous with the passage of time, which could then be selectively used to deny technology, knowledge, and services to the space developing nations, like Pakistan, who are still struggling with the formulation of national space policy and space laws. Since Pakistan is a State Party to most of the UN space-related treaties and agreements, though non-binding, its non-compliance with the obligations set by these treaties may create difficulties in procurement of satellite design, manufacturing, and launch facilities from other states.

It will also result in marginalization of Pakistan on the international level in space domain and its future space cooperation with other space faring nations, on both bilateral and multilateral levels, will be undermined. Likewise, without a legal regulatory framework, it will be difficult for Pakistan to procure space technology, knowledge, and services from the multinational non-governmental agencies and international regimes.

At the domestic level, due to the absence of national space laws, Pakistan’s commercial interests are also being compromised. For instance, foreign satellite operators are exploiting inadequacies of our national space legislation, and making huge profits by selling their satellite bandwidths in Pakistan’s territory at cheaper rates. Which is not only adversely affecting our satellite services but also causing huge financial loss to the national exchequer. On the contrary, most countries, such as India, have regulations in which foreign SATCOM operators cannot sell their bandwidth, without paying heavy taxes and duties.

Additionally, without any defined space regulatory framework and policies Pakistan has not been able to exploit full potential of public-private partnership in space-related commercial ventures which is becoming a norm in space industry worldwide. Last but not the least, Pakistan will not be able to capitalize on the tremendous opportunities offered by space applications, which could be gainfully utilized for its socio-economic growth and to enhance its security, without any clear directions provided by national space legislation.


Space technology and its applications have rapidly advanced in the last six decades and have emerged as a critical resource for developing nations. These have impacted every facet of human life. Not only are space related systems playing a vital role in sustainable human development but they have also become integral to military capability and power potential of a nation. Considering the rapid growth in space-related activities and their diverse civil and military applications UN has enacted several binding and non-binding treaties and principles to better regulate these activities. To make effective use of space and to safeguard their national interests, most space faring nations have formulated their own national space laws and national space policies. Pakistan, despite having an early start in this domain, has neither a national space policy nor national space laws. To keep pace with the advancement in this vital sector and to exploit its true potentials for its socio-economic progress as well as security, one of the steps Pakistan must take is to enact its national space legislation and formulate its space policy. This is also essential to meet its international obligations and to avoid marginalization in space domain.


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In 1959 the UN General Assembly formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), through Resolution 1472 (XIV), for the discourse and codification of International Space Law. During the time span of thirteen years (1967-1979) the committee concluded five international space treaties and conventions existing today.

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