VERTICAL SOVEREIGNTY – space law

The debate on vertical sovereignty (“The line between air space and outer space”) predates the space age. The phenomenon “vertical sovereignty” means that up to what height inside the territory of a state, that state exercise supreme power. In other words it is the demarcation of the countries air space and the outer space. Several articles were published on this subject in 1950s, debates were done and it has been left on the state to define the vertical limits of their state boundary. But none of the states have explicitly decided their vertical boundary.

The Outer Space Treaties have propounded many principles like the outer space is not within the sovereign power of any state, can be used by each and every state, also the atmosphere of the Outer Space should remain peaceful which means deployment of any nuclear weapon or any kind of mass destruction weapon is prohibited. But due to definitional scarcity of Vertical Sovereignty, difficulty in application of the above mentioned principles may arise, also the lacking acts as a hindrance in the working of States and also of Space Authorities.

There were several treaties held in order to make certain guidelines regarding the conduct in outer space and are successful up to that extent, but all of them failed to give a boundary line between the earth air space and the outer space. Inter alia, the treaty on principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other Celestial Body, 1967 commonly known as Outer Space Treaty, was the most prominent treaties in the realm of Outer Space; more than 100 countries ratified this treaty, but this treaty was also unable to give a clear cut definition of up to what extent Vertical Sovereignty should lie.

Several attempts to define the Outer Space and States’ Vertical Sovereignty were made. Some of them are as follows:

  • A Distance Rule: This rule simply says that to fix the upper altitude boundary. For instance Denmark and some other countries have fixed there vertical boundary at 100 km from the sea level.  
  • The Von Karman Line: According to this rule, the boundary should be lie up to the height where flying of an aircraft is possible, i.e. the airspace ends at the point where flying aircraft is impossible.
  • Orbiting Line: McDowell gave this rule, he says that air space ends and outer space starts at the lower perigee of an orbiting satellite. This was the most appropriate theory in my point of view, but it has a drawback as the normal lowest perigee of orbiting satellite is at 160 km but new and enhanced technology provided satellites which may have lowest perigee at 100 km from the sea level and the satellites with circular orbit may makes it orbit at 125 km altitude.

In my point of view all of the above rules are incomplete, as if we go with the first rule then the limit of 100 km is very low and the sovereignty of a state ends at 100 km altitude which may be misused by the other states as over 100 km altitude the former state is incompetent to take any action. The second and third rules are incomplete because the technology is enhancing at good pace and more advanced aircraft are being created which may fly at very high altitude and thus the boundary is also required to increase in consonance with that, which is not proper. Also the Karman Rule neglected the different layers of space, which do have different categories which have been consulted in the Orbiting Line theory of McDowell.

Making very high altitudes as the boundary also has its repercussion, for instance, it would act as a hindrance in the space launches and satellite traffic. And making very low altitudes as the boundary may result in security concerns. Thus need of concrete law on this matter is necessary, because leaving it on the state indefinitely may result in misuse of power by powerful states.

Now the technology is developing, for instance few days ago a news surfaced about Richard Branson, a UK Billionaire, who experienced weightlessness at the altitude of 90 km, in an aircraft made by his own company. His intention is to produce more of those aircrafts for commercial purpose.  Also the US Air Force, awards the status of astronauts to anyone who flew at or above the altitude of 80 km. Whether Mr. Richard Branson and his crew or in future those who will fly in those aircrafts should be treated as Astronauts? In order to have an appropriate answer to this question the authorities should have to decide the upper altitude of States’ Sovereignty.

It is also true that, demarcation of vertical boundaries is not as easy as Maritime Laws, but the uppermost altitude is required to be set by the International Authorities and then it is to be made mandatory for every state to set their Vertical Boundary up to that uppermost altitude or below it. Indefinitely leaving this issue will may become a problematic situation to decide, when any issue regarding this arise.

Aishwarya Says:

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