Outer Space Exploration and the Sustainability of the Space Environment – An Uneasy Relationship





outer space, sustainability, space debris, outer space heritage, cultural heritage, human heritage, planetary parks, outer space environment, anthropocentrism, UNCOPUOS, UNESCO


In contrast with the early years of space flight that were dominated by the political priorities and military concerns of the two superpowers, the USA and the then Soviet Union, a new space era has dawned where not only states are involved as serious actors in the space arena, but also private companies. Because of the significant increase in the number of space actors, outer space is becoming a congested and competitive environment. It is self-evident that the significant increase in private and state-sponsored space ventures has serious implications for the protection and sustainability of the outer space environment. Specifically, the proliferation of space debris and the current lack of protection of vulnerable scientific, historical, and cultural sites on celestial bodies are issues of concern. Several measures to balance the seemingly competing interests of space exploration and the sustainability of the space environment have been suggested. This article aims to discuss these measures and to assess to what extent they are in conformity with the current outer space governance regime. It is concluded that the measures suggested to actively address the space debris problem and to protect the cultural heritage in space may contravene the Outer Space Treaty, especially the rules and prohibitions regarding property rights in space. Moreover, whilst the removal of orbital debris is essential to ensure the sustainable use of the outer space environment, some space junk may have cultural significance and be worthy of protection. A balance should thus be struck between preserving cultural heritage and managing the risks posed by space debris. It is therefore recommended that the development of interim soft-law rules (and an eventual treaty) should be undertaken under the auspices of existing United Nations bodies, namely the UNCOPUOS and UNESCO.


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Author Biography

Anel Ferreira-Snyman, University of South Africa

Professor, Department of Jurisprudence, School of Law, University of South Africa




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How to Cite

Ferreira-Snyman, A. (2023). Outer Space Exploration and the Sustainability of the Space Environment – An Uneasy Relationship. Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal, 26, (Published on 27 September 2023) pp 1 – 52. https://doi.org/10.17159/1727-3781/2023/v26i0a14960