Military & Aerospace

India’s Strategic Dominance in Space and Outer Space Laws
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Issue Vol. 36.1, Jan-Mar 2021 | Date : 06 Mar , 2021

India’s Grasp of the Space and Universe

Ancient India, since time immemorial, has had a profound understanding and association with space and the universe. India has always been a land of seekers and explorers, where noble saints and sages advocated that the human body itself is made up of five fundamental elements – earth, fire, air, water and space (ether) and its energy (or soul) is intrinsically linked with the entire universe; that the ultimate goal of all living beings is to attain unity with the universe. This state has been referred to as attainment of truth and knowledge, moksha or Nirvana. The later mythological scriptures like smritis, stutis, itihaas, puranas speak about highly evolved entities based in exotic lands and in different dimensions such as the Yakshas, Ganas and Apsaras from which a vast majority of modern day sci-fi writers have borrowed freely and drawn great ideas and inspiration.

The ability of ancient Indians to observe, interpret and correctly predict the movement of celestial bodies helped ancient Indians analyse their effect on Earth, tidal streams, season, crops flora and fauna. Various ancient sciences such as astronomy, astrology, palmistry, time keeping, astronomical and tidal tabulations, sea navigation and determining sea routes for ships were evolved after critical study of space and the universe. The space observatory Jantar Mantar built by Maharaja Jai Singh in 1723 A.D continues to marvel visitors for its precision and accuracy even in present times. It was used to make calendars and astronomical tables comparable in accuracy with those of present times. It is pertinent to mention here that ancient India was a leading maritime nation with trade relation stretching as far as with Rome, France, Africa, Persia and Mesopotamia in the West and up to Indonesia in the East, which also helped bring Indian culture and religion to these regions and brought transformational changes there. These would not have been possible without the well-developed science of astrological navigation developed by early Indians.


The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

ISRO, under the aegis of the Department of Space, is the premier and the only space research organisation of the country. It has undertaken 105 spacecraft missions, 75 launch missions including a scramjet technical demonstration, launch of ten student satellites, two re-entry missions, launching of 297 foreign satellites of 33 countries. The ISRO’s Indian National Satellite system (INSAT) is the largest constellation of communication satellite in the Asia-Pacific with 15 operation satellites namely INSAT-3A, 3C, 4A, 4B, 4CR and GSAT-6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 18. The INSAT constellation provides more than 200 C Band and Ku Band transponders for services pertaining to disaster warning, Search and Rescue, weather forecasting, societal applications, newsgathering, tele-communication and television broadcasting.

Earth Observation Satellites

The Earth’s Remote Sensing Satellites observe and record various parameters on the Earth. These are somewhat like a spy satellite but used for non-military purposes. These satellites have diversified spatial, spectral and temporal resolution and provide data to meet different user requirements for both global and domestic requirements for the purpose of agriculture, water resources, urban planning, rural development, mineral prospecting, environment, forestry, ocean resources, and disaster management.

India also has 13 operational remote sensing satellites which is one of the largest constellations in its class and involves satellites RESOURCESAT-1, 2, 2A CARTOSAT-1, 2, 2A, 2B, RISAT-1 and 2, OCEANSAT-2, Megha-Tropiques, SARAL and SCATSAT-1 and 4. In Geo-stationary orbit, we have INSAT-3D, Kalpana & INSAT3A, and INSAT-3DR.

Experimental Satellites

ISRO also has to its credit many experimental satellites that it launched to undertake research in the field of remote sensing, atmospheric studies, payload development, orbit controls, and recovery technology. These include the CARTOSAT series including INS-1C, INS-1B, INS-1A, a student satellite – YOUTHSAT, APPLE – an experimental communication satellite, Rohini and Aryabhatta.

Satellite Based Navigation System

ISRO is working jointly with Airports Authority of India to develop the Global Positioning System (GPS)-aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) system. GAGAN will provide accurate and timely satellite-based navigation system for Air Traffic Management for civil aviation application through GSAT-8 and GSAT-10 satellites inter-operable with other international SBAS and will provide seamless navigation across regional boundaries.

The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)

The need for an indigenous space-based regional positioning system was felt when during the 1999 Kargil Conflict when the US denied its GPS services in the region to India. Navigation through Indian Constellation (NavIC) is an independent indigenous satellite-based regional positioning system meant for the Defence Services and for critical national applications. NavIC is meant to provide two types of services – Standard Positioning Services and Restricted Services. ISRO has built total of nine satellites in IRNSS series of which eight are in orbit. Three of these satellites are in Geo-synchronous orbit at 29 degree inclination to the equatorial plane. However, the NavIC has been facing considerable problems from failure of the onboard Rudibium atomic clocks imported from Europe. Accurate calculation of position becomes difficult when time signal is erratic or missing. The satellites operate in L5 and S Band. However, the same band is also used in communication devices like Bluetooth, LTE and Wireless Fidelity (wifi) and the experts are apprehensive that the NavIC may interfere with them. This is likely to affect the NavIC receiver in proximity. Users in India and within 1,500 km from its borders can benefit from NavIC.

NavIC will help India enter a group of select countries having their own GPS. America’s GPS has 24 satellite constellations. Russia has GLONASS and European Union has Galileo, the Chinese are developing their Biedou Navigation Satellite System. The system has cost ISRO Rs 1,400 crore and will aid in terrestrial, aerial and marine navigation, fleet management, vehicle tracking, providing geodetic data, mapping, visual and voice navigation for drivers. The NavIC is superior to GPS as it has a dual band over single band of GPS and will prevent interference, frequency delay and disturbances giving higher accuracy. ISRO is in talks with two major chipmakers for the supply of NavIC chips for Indian smartphones – with US-based chipmaker Qualcomm and also with Singapore-based Broadcom. ISRO’s commercial arm has already acquired Multi Chip Module (MCM) from Taiwan-based firm, SkyTraQ. The MCM is based on 55nm technology to build NavIC messaging and Vehicle tracker units. The IAF is already in discussion with ISRO for fitting of the NavIC navigation system in its aircraft.



This is ISRO’s first satellite dedicated to deep survey and study of the universe and celestial bodies. It is capable of studying various celestial emissions in X-ray, optical and UV spectral bands simultaneously – a capability which even NASA’s Hubble telescope does not have. One of the unique features of AstroSat mission is that it enables the simultaneous multi-wavelength observations of various astronomical objects with a single satellite. The AstroSat, with a lift-off mass of 1,515 kg was launched into a 650-km orbit on September 28, 2015. The minimum useful life of the AstroSat mission is expected to be five years.


India created ripples among the world’s space agencies with the success of its Mars Orbiter Mission, named Mangalyaan, in its very first attempt. The Mangalyaan, launched on September 05, 2013, was India’s first inter-planetary mission. The success of the mission made India only the fourth country after the US, Russia and European Space Agency to have achieved this feat, beating even China and many other first world nations. The Mars probe was launched using India’s work horse Polar Sateliote Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The PSLV, though a proven launch vehicle, is underpowered, with limited load bearing capability. Thus, the Mars Orbiter was severely restricted with the amount of fuel it could carry to reach Mars.

However, ISRO scientists proved their mettle and came out with a unique out-of-the-box solution wherein the Mars Orbiter spent about a month revolving around the Earth with seven-apogee raising orbits and using Earth’s own gravity as a sling-shot, propelled the Mars Orbiter towards Trans-Mars interjection to the Red Planet. The attempt surprised even the best brains and organisations of the world with its implicit superb application of laws of physics and number crunching capability. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) carried five scientific instruments. It is the least expensive Mars mission till date costing about Rs 450 crore. The primary objective of the mission is to develop the technologies required for designing, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.

Chandrayan 2

India had successfully launched Chandrayan-1 on October 22, 2008, with 11 scientific instruments of the US, UK, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria. The spacecraft orbited 100 km from the surface of the Moon and carried out chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon. Chandrayan-1 was the first one to discover presence of water in Moon’s craters.

Chandrayan-2 was launched on July 22, 2019, after quickly overcoming an initial glitch. The lunar mission to Moon’s South Polar Region was designed to improve the understanding for future space expeditions. The mission’s objectives were to trace the history of the Moon and study water molecules in the landing region. The mission was also a test bed for technologies required for deep-space mission. The mission included a lander ‘Vikram’, designed to soft land on the Moon surface; a rover ‘Pragyan’ for exploration and experimentation, and an orbiter to relay information to the Earth station. ISRO used an in-house developed Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark-III launcher for the mission. The lunar South Pole is especially interesting because the lunar surface area here remains in shadow and is much larger than that at the North Pole. There is a possibility of the presence of exotic elements and water ice in and around the permanently shadowed areas. The availability of water can be used as source of hydrogen for rocket fuel in deep space missions. In addition, the South Polar Region has craters that are cold traps and would contain a fossil record of the early Solar System.


India’s second lunar mission was launched using the GSLV Mk-III. It is a three-stage, medium-lift launch vehicle, primarily meant to launch satellites and likely to be used for future crewed missions. With its successful launch, ISRO achieved a higher payload launch capacity compared to the PSLV and GSLV MK-II. In early January 2014, ISRO had conducted the first successful launch of a rocket (GSLV D-5) using indigenous cryogenic technology. Subsequently, on August 27, 2015, with the successful launch of GSLV D-6, outfitted with the indigenous Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS), ISRO has succeeded in mastering the cryogenic rocket technology required for such launches. This success has come after more than two decades of effort beginning in the early 1990s.


Rukmani Satellite Communication System

The Indian Navy became the first Defence Service in the country to have its own dedicated communication satellite system with the launch of Rukmani Satellite in 2013. This changed the dynamics of the way naval ships, aircraft and shore units communicated at extended ranges. The satellite communication brought with it encrypted real time communication, versatility in sharing surveillance data, formulating the tactical picture and facilitated effective command and control of the whole operational theatre. Rukmani, a GSAT-7 or INSAT 4F is a multi-band military communication satellite of 2,650kg, which cost merely Rs 180 crore with foreign launch cost put at approximately Rs 480 crore.

The satellite provided effective communication and surveillance capability in the Eastern and the Western flanks of the Indian Ocean Region with close to 2,000 nautical miles footprint. This took away the Indian Navy’s reliance on V/UHF/HF-based communication system which was vulnerable to jamming, hacking, noise and range limitation. The earlier use of the commercial INMARSAT satellite-based communication terminals, used mostly by merchant ships, onboard naval ships was deemed expensive and insecure. Their wartime use could have compromised communications and position of naval units. The INMARSAT communication system is presently under British Satellite Telecommunication Ltd., which offers global mobile satellite communication services.

GSAT-6: India’s Second Military Satellite

The GSAT-6 satellite, weighing 2,117kg, is the second military satellite meant for the armed forces. This allows soldiers to use satellite terminals in place of portable V/UHF transmitters and receivers while on the move, in varied terrains ranging from, sea, seashore, dessert, jungles, riverine and snow-clad mountains. The satellite will provide real time communication and tactical picture to the command and control centre. GSAT-6 is the twenty-fifth geo-stationary communication satellite built by ISRO and fifth in the GSAT series. It provides communication in S-band with five spot beams, through a large antenna of six-metre width, covering whole of India for user links and in C-band with one beam.


It is the 35th communication satellite built by ISRO, which was successfully launched on December 19, 2018. The satellite is meant to provide communication capability to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the Ku band. It uses a chemical propulsion system and has an operational mission life of a minimum of eight years. The satellite was designed to enable the IAF to link ground radar stations, drones, air bases and AWACS aircraft and boost network-centric warfare capabilities and common intelligence. Along with GSAT-7 and GSAT-6, this new satellite, dubbed the ‘Indian Angry Bird’, forms the band of communications satellites for use by the Indian military.

NASA ISRO- Synthetic Aperture Radar

As a part of cooperation with the US space agency NASA, ISRO will be launching a SAR satellite using GSLV-Mk II in 2021. India began its unmanned RISAT-2 spacecraft-based radar imaging programme with the April 20, 2009, launch of satellite resembling the all-weather Israeli radar imaging surveillance programme satellite TecSAR. This was meant to be utilised to address India’s border security issues.

RISAT Satellite

In May 2019, India had launched RISAT-2B, an Earth observation spy satellite to replace its predecessor RISAR-2 that was being used to undertake surveillance of terrorist activities and terror camps across the border in Pakistan. The RISAT- 2B is called an all-weather spy satellite and can be used to take high resolution images of the Earth during day and night, and also under cloudy conditions. The satellite is equipped with an X-Band synthetic aperture radar that can take pictures in any condition. The spy satellite, with sensors sourced from Israel Aerospace Industries, has a life span of five years. ISRO is scheduled to launch four more such satellites. Images from these satellites were extremely useful during the 2016 surgical strike and February 2019 Balakot air strike.

CARTOSAT Satellites

The CARTOSAT 3 satellite to be launched by ISRO is the latest in series of CARTOSAT satellites with advanced capabilities and resolution up to 20cm. The resolution of CARTOSAT-3 is refined to be able to take very clear picture of a gun or enemy bunker. The present CARTOSAT 2, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, and 2F group of satellites have resolutions up to 0.5 meters. It carries state-of-the-art Panchromatic (PAN) cameras that take black and white stereoscopic pictures of the Earth in the visible region of the electro-magnetic spectrum and are used for both military and civilian application.

Gisat Series Satellites

With the planned launch of Gisat 1 and 2 satellites, the Indian Army can scan or map an area every other day. Till now, old imaging satellites could map a particular area only once in 22 days. The satellite will provide near real time images of vast landscapes under cloud-free conditions. The Gisat will carry geo-imager with multi-spectral (visible, near infra-red and thermal), multi resolution (50 m to 1.5 km) imaging instruments that will enhance the country’s land mapping capabilities. Gisat has both military and civilian use.


In April 2019, ISRO successfully placed an Electronic Intelligence Satellite in a 749-km orbit around the Earth. It is a joint project between ISRO and DRDO. It is an Indian reconnaissance satellite which will provide space-based electronic intelligence or ELINT. It is capable of providing location of enemy radars by detecting, locating and identifying the characteristic electromagnetic emissions of various radar signals. This has considerably improved the situational awareness of the Indian Armed Forces.

HySIS and Microsat-R

Hyperspectral Imaging Satellite (HySIS) is an Earth observation satellite launched on November 29, 2018. This satellite can see in 55 spectral or colour bands from 630km above the ground. The optical imaging detector array chip in the HySIS satellite has been designed by ISRO’s Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre and manufactured by its electronic arm, the Semi-Conductor Laboratory in Chandigarh. The satellite will be used for a range of applications apart from military surveillance like agriculture, forestry, assessment of coastal zones, inland waters, soil and other geological environments. The hyper-spectral technology is still an evolving science and is a much sought after technology globally. The Microsat-R is a military imaging satellite capable of imaging at night. Launched on January 24, 2019, it possibly acted as a target for Anti-Satellite missile test during Mission Shakti in 2019.

Mission Shakti: Anti Satellite Missile Test

On March 27, 2019, the country was filled with great pride and enthusiasm when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the successful testing of an anti-satellite missile with a direct hit on our own target satellite (Microsat-R in Low Earth Orbit) as part of ‘Mission Shakti’. The success of the mission required a very high degree of precision guidance technology and missile manoeuverability capabilities. The DRDO used its Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor and associated technology, which is part of the ongoing ballistic missile defence programme, to achieve the objectives set out in the mission. The technology also demonstrated India’s capability to interdict Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles in their trajectories in outer space. The capability is a game-changer and with this test, India entered the select group of countries that can be called ‘space powers’. With the success of ‘Mission Shakti’, India became the fourth country with ASAT capabilities after USA, Russia and China.

Integrated Space Cell

The Integrated Space Cell comprising the three services, the Department of Space and the ISRO, was formed owing to growing threat to India’s space-based assets and threat to ground-based assets from space. It is jointly operated by the three services. The idea of having an Integrated Space cell had originated in 2010 owing to the growing offensive and counter offensive space-based weapons in India’s neighbourhood. The formation of an Integrated Space Cell became a necessity after China used a medium-range ballistic missile to shoot down one of its own ageing Feng Yun 1C Polar Orbit weather satellite that it had launched in 1999.


The country’s Armed Forces, along with DRDO, held the first joint military space exercise on July 25 and 26, 2019. The DRDO was the analysing and assessing agency to check defence preparedness from space-based threats. The exercise was meant to realise key shortfalls and challenges, if any, armed conflict spreads to outer space. The idea was to assess India’s military capability in the modern warfare scenario of space-based offensive and counter-offensive options available including anti-satellite missiles and directed energy weapons. The exercise came just after Mission Shakti to formulate an integrated response to space-based threats. The lessons derived from the exercise will be used to formulate a joint space war doctrine for outer space warfare.

International Trends in Space

The US Navy first used navigation satellites in 1960. By 2013, the total number of military satellites in the world was approximately 350, with 193 alone belonging to the US, 74 belonging to Russia and 68 belonging to China. Other countries such as France, UK, Germany, and Israel own fewer than ten satellites. Many GPS satellites launched serve both military and civilian use and their real capabilities are not disclosed. Since 1970, the US Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has been operating space-based early warning satellites equipped with infrared sensors scanning the Earth through wide-angle Schmidt cameras and operating in geo-synchronous orbits under its Defence Support Programmes (DSP).

The DSP is meant to detect nuclear explosions, satellite launches, detect and track ICBM. These have since been replaced by ‘high’ and ‘low’ Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS). The SBIRS High was designed to use four Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites and two High Elliptical Orbit (HEO) satellites to track while the SBIRS was designed to use 24 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. While the SBIRS Low deployment schedule was 2010, the deployment of SBIRS high satellites 05 and 06 is scheduled in 2021 and 2022 respectively. The USAF SPC’s Space and Missile Centre (SMC) is now planning on a more capable, resilient and defensible next-generation ‘Overhead Persistent Infrared’ (OPIR) programme, employing GEO satellites, as the next evolution of SBIRS programme to rapidly acquire and deliver global missile threat warning to its Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) war fighting systems.

The US spends close to about $48 billion on space programmes. The US Armed Forces maintain an international network of satellites with ground stations located on various continents, to provide GPS, carry out reconnaissance and for communication networking of armed forces operating around the globe. The Soviets had conceptualised the Almaz space station as early as in 1960s, to search for sea-based targets. ‘Thor’ and ‘Rod from God’ were some of the US projects in early 1950-1960 to weaponise space and use kinetic energy munitions from space. Directed Energy Weapons and Tactical High Energy Lasers (THEL) projects by US and Israel were also tested between 1996 and 2005 to destroy airborne and space-borne targets. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory, launched by the US between 1963 and 1969, was used for reconnaissance. In 1985, for the first time, a US F-15A fighter aircraft fired a successful anti-satellite missile. NASA also has an asteroid mission on the cards. The need for capabilities to manoeuver, divert or decimate an inbound asteroid on collision course with earth, cannot be denied.

The US Space Agency launched Hubble telescope in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 1990, with the assistance of European Space Agency, and it remains in operation till date. Its successor, the James Web Space Telescope will probably be launched in 2021. The inherent advantage of a space-based observatory includes much higher resolution and significantly low diffraction. The space observatory will also observe infra-red and ultraviolet light which gets absorbed in atmosphere. Apart from Hubble, NASA operates Chandra X- ray and the Spitzer infra-red space telescope. NASA has many inter-planetary missions to its credit including to the sun and to various asteroids. Its Mars Rover continues to beam back images from Mars, and from Juno near Jupiter. It has sent missions to Pluto and beyond the solar system. In 2003, the ‘Mars Odyssey’ discovered vast amounts of water in the polar region of Mars.

Russia has a separate Space Force responsible for early warning of missile threats, ballistic missile defence, and the fabrication, deployment, maintenance and control of in-orbit space vehicles such as the new reconnaissance satellites. The Space Forces operate the GLONASS GPS. The Russian and Chinese space surveillance networks are capable of searching, tracking and characterising satellites in all orbits. This provides space operations and counter space offensive capabilities. The Russian Federal Space Agency ‘Roscomos’ played a key role in construction of the International Space Station since 1998. It has a good record of collaboration with NASA. Russia was the first country to have its own space station MIR even before ISS came into existence. Presently, astronauts to the ISS are launched by Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. Russia, along with the European Space Agency, is looking at a major mission to Mars. It is also looking at robotic missions to moon. The Venera 7 and Mars 3 were the Russian missions undertaken to soft land on Venus and Mars.

In January 2007, China had successfully carried out an Anti-Satellite Missile Test by destroying its own satellite in orbit at 800 km. The debris created by China’s missile test, led to the destruction of a Russian Satellite later. China has considerable space-based intelligence, surveillance, navigation, meteorological and communications satellite networks. It has the second highest space budget amounting to $11 billion. Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked the Chinese Air Force to speed up integration of its air and space capabilities. After US and Russia, China has become the third country to send a Rover to Moon and has had a series of successes in manned space flights. China is also planning to build its third space station module. The Chinese Space Station intends to provide deep space exploration capabilities to Moon and Mars and will also provide a test-bed for key technologies. On September 02, 2019, the Chinese lunar rover Yutu-2 discovered a gel-like substance with mysterious lustre on the far side of the Moon.

The ISS is an LEO-habitable artificial satellite. The ISS programme has been jointly developed by five space agencies, viz. NASA, Roscomos, JAXA (Japan), CSA (Canada) and the European Space Agency (ESA). The ISS serves as a micro-gravity and space environment research laboratory. The ownership and use of the space station is established by inter-governmental agreements. It has two segments – one is Russian, another American. The latter is used by many others.

Space-X, a US company founded by Elon Musk, has revolutionised space technology. Its ultimate aim is to colonise other planets and enable people to live there. The company is manufacturing advance rockets and spacecraft. It is the only private company to return spacecraft from LEO. Its Dragon spacecraft is being used to provide supplies to the ISS and launching US military satellites. It also has in its kitty, the most powerful rocket ‘Falcon’. It is presently focusing on a fully reusable launch vehicle, most powerful ever built, to settle human colonies on Mars.

The Japanese JAXA Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, launched in 2014 with ion engine technology, became the first spacecraft to land a rover on the surface of an asteroid in June 2018. The mission was for 18 months, the probe was planned to deploy a small lander and three rovers to poke, prod and impact the asteroid. It will then blast an artificial crater to analyse material below the asteroid’s surface. After that, the probe was to head back to Earth, arriving near the end of 2020 with samples in tow.

In May 2019, NASA along with the ESA, undertook an exercise to study the possibility of an asteroid impact on Earth – a fictional scenario with realistic possibilities. The scenario has been developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Centre for NEO Studies (CNEOS). Astronomers estimate there are about 1,000 near-Earth asteroids with diameter exceeding a kilometre. If one of those struck the Earth, no amount of preparation would help, but there are many small asteroids in Near Earth Orbit (NEO) that science could potentially do something about before they strike. The exercise was meant to decide upon a counter strategy.

Emerging Laws of Outer Space and their Implications for India

A law becomes meaningful only when it is enforceable. Space laws, like other international laws, are affected by this principle. International laws do not have an enforcement mechanism as member states have sovereignty over their territory and people, and their adherence to any international law is mostly voluntary or under pressure of potential economic sanctions. International laws are also affected by the military and economic might of the member states who dictate their terms on weaker states. Hence, equality or fairness in implementation of International Laws is highly questionable. In spite of absence of effective mechanism to implement international laws, they continue to be framed and ratified. The known accepted sources of international laws continue to be mutual treaties between states, customary international laws, United Nation (UN) charter and laws passed by UN bodies, judgements by International courts and inter-governmental treaties.

The International Space Law is based on five core treaties – the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue Agreement, 1972 Liability Convention, the 1974 Registration Convention, the 1979 Moon Agreement, and the 2010 IYU Constitution and Convention. Article I of the Outer Space Treaty permits freedom to explore, use and conduct scientific investigations in outer space. Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty prohibits weaponisation of space and prohibits signatories from putting weapons of mass destruction in outer orbit of the Earth. Article VI stipulates that a state shall remain responsible for all its national and space activities, including those undertaken by non-state actors. It is, thus, clear that states are free to carry out scientific exploration and investigation of the outer space and are responsible for activities of their citizens. Therefore, even Elon Musk can undertake space-based activities only with the sanction of the US government.

It must be understood that though a nation state has sovereign rights on land and airspace above its territory, there is no law and method available to delimit airspace from outer space. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) has not been able to resolve the issue of delimitation for the last 50 years and with the growing advancements in technology, the range of sovereign airspace has increased. The right to peaceful transit of satellites in outer space over territory of other states has now become a customary international law and remains an un-codified but accepted practice.

The ‘Aerodynamic Lift Theory’ has failed to impress scientists who cannot figure out exactly at which point air disappears and space starts. ‘Under Bogota Declaration View 1977’ developing nations such as Brazil, Kenya and Chile, that are located near the Equator, have declared their position claiming sovereignty rights over space, up to where their geo-stationary satellites would need to orbit i.e. 30,000 miles away from the Earth’s surface. India must take a clue from the same to declare its own sovereign rights in the space to deny space to any geo-stationary enemy spy, reconnaissance, ELINT and remote sensing satellite, whose presence is detrimental to our national interests. Another primary reason is limited space available, as three geo-stationary satellites which are launched at the equatorial plane, are adequate to cover the whole Earth and thus will soon run out of prominent space due to increasing space traffic from developed nations.

The ‘Moon Agreement’ declares the Moon as ‘common heritage of mankind’. Thus, no nation can declare the right of sovereignty on reaching and establishing its facilities on the lunar surface first. The ‘Moon Agreement’ allows the right to explore and use of Moon without discrimination. However, as brought out earlier, a law is only good as long as it can be enforced. Any nation state, individual or a corporation, which sets up its facilities first on the Moon, a planet or any other celestial body first, can gain a first mover advantage and physically deny the achievement of the same to late movers. This also applies to Elon Musk’s plan of establishing a human colony on Mars where water has been discovered in its polar regions, and which would enable terra-forming.

In the event of violation of any International Law and treaty by individuals reaching other planets, there is no way laws can be enforced against their wishes; this is a one-way ticket. Also, as per ancient land laws including Indian, Roman, German, Islamic and English laws, first possession and use of land brings ownership rights. This leads to formation of territorial claims and state boundaries. The same have been endorsed by eminent jurists such as Savigny, Salmond, Ihering, Pollock and Holmes. Therefore, use of land by any inter-planetary or inter-lunar mission will possibly create issues of land ownership and sovereignty rights in the future.

Since treaties and agreement are important source of international law, Inter-Governmental Agreements (IGA) cover the functioning of crew members onboard the International Space Station observatory. The IGA covers issues ranging from Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), crimes by crew members, civil and criminal jurisdiction and operational responsibilities. On August 28, 2019, Anne McClain, became the first astronaut onboard the ISS to have committed the crime of accessing the bank account of her spouse without his permission, from whom she was obtaining a divorce. India must examine such legal arrangements and treatises, so as to get into similar programmes with other member states for deep-space manned exploration missions. It would also be required to frame laws for outer space and evolve an enforcement mechanism.

Following the 1986 ‘UN Principles Relating to Remote Sensing’, India allows non-discriminatory dissemination of remote sensing data to all member states. India has a Remote Sensing Data Policy 2001 under which, a private Indian player is prohibited from launching a Remote Sensing Satellite. The policy also prohibits domestic players from publishing sensitive information pertaining to national security obtained through images from Indian Remote Sensing Satellites of the National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad. However, there is still no restriction on publication of similar images obtained from foreign remote sensing satellites by Indian or foreign entities. This policy requires a re-look as it fails to adequately cover our national interest. Additionally, it will be in India’s interest to encourage more private players to undertake development of effective, efficient and cheap remote sensing r satellites and spacecraft for which policy guidelines can be laid to out to promote private ventures in space as well as to ensure accountability and national security.

Under the provisions of the 1967 ‘Outer Space Treaty’ as well as 1973 ‘Liability Convention’, any nation is liable to pay damages to other member states if its space activities cause damage to property of other member states or its citizens. However, any international laws can only be implemented in India through Indian courts, if the corresponding domestic law to support the same has been enacted by the parliament according to constitutional provisions. Damage to any satellite caused by the debris of Anti-Satellite Missile tests, can make India liable for damages. Such a test can be seen as opportunities by other states to seek reparations by claiming damage to their ageing satellites.


Outer space offers vast opportunities and risks. The first movers will always enjoy an advantage and reap commercial dividends with their lead in related technologies. They may also develop the ability to deny others the same capability. With the improvement in technology, deep space exploration is becoming a reality. The momentum of space activity has gained considerable pace with the entry of private commercial firms. However, any space activity is an expensive business. The space and arms race between the US and the erstwhile-USSR led to the collapse of the latter. Now, 50 years later, India has much ground to cover. As a self-respecting nation, India cannot choose to ignore the risks of being left out in the race for outer space.

Additionally, India must build her own capabilities to monitor threats from Near Earth Orbit asteroids striking the Earth on her territory, wherein a small asteroid hit could cause substantial local damage without affecting other parts of the world. The Japanese Space agency (JAXA) has shown its ability to mine and manoeuver an asteroid. India must also extend her anti-satellite missile and other capabilities to monitor and counter or manoeuver and divert such threats as well. In spite of being a late and slow starter, India has some space feathers in her cap. India must now choose her moves carefully and exploit its space progress commercially to fund future space projects. India is blessed with a large pool of technically qualified human resources which is educated, multi-lingual and has a scientific temperament. India must capitalise on her human resources by encouraging participation of private and public firms for developing indigenous technology for development and fabrication of sophisticated satellites, launch vehicles and spacecraft to emerge as one of the leading space-faring nations in the world. India must encourage scientific temperament and awareness about utility of space applications among academicians, scholars and media houses through regular interactive and participative programmes.

The six nuclear-powered nations, who became permanent members of the UN Security Council, had exploited their power and position to dictate biased policies such as CTBT and NPT to deny other states the same technological ability. Therefore, India should now strive become a maker of space policies. This can only be achieved by staying technologically and materially ahead in the game and by gaining strategic dominance in space. While India’s space missions must aim to be financially self-sustainable through commercialisation, India’s space research and ventures should never suffer for want of funds. Human colonisation excursions into outer space and inter-planetary/exo-solar system colonisation is both imperative and inevitable on account of depleting resources on the Earth, rising population, pollution, possibility of threat and consequence of nuclear war and an asteroid strike. India will have to play a dominant role in this exercise and firmly establish itself as a leading player in the game. Efforts made by us today will be a proud legacy for tomorrow. We owe this to our future generations.


  1.  “Archaeology of Seafaring – The Indian Ocean in Ancient Period”. Indian Council of Historical Research, Himanshu Prabha Ray, 1999.
  2. Understanding International Air and Space Law-An Indian perspective, Eshaan Bansal, Prabhat publications, 2019 edition.
  3. Mitra’s Law of Possession and Ownership of Property, Sodhi Publications, 2018 edition.
  4. Militarization of Space, Wing Commander Kaza Lalitendra, Center for Air Power Studies, 2010.
  5. International Aviation Law – A Practical Guide, Professor Ron Bartsch, Routledge Publication, Second Edition, 2018.
  6. The Case for Space: how the revolution in spaceflight opens up a future of limitless possibility, Robert Zubrin, Prometheus Books, 2019.
  7. Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Astroid, Comets and Planets, John S Lewis, Helix Books, 1997.
  8. The development of outer space, sovereignty and property rights in international law, Thomas Gangale, ABC-CLIOInc, 2009.
  9. Outer Space, Security and Legal Challenges, Dr GS Sachdeva, KW publishers, Center for Air Power Studies, 2010.
  10. Ibid.
  11. International Law, Malcom N Shaw, Cambridge Publication, Eighth Edition.
  12. International law and Human Rights, Dr HO Agarwal, Central Publication, 21st edition.

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About the Author

Lt Cdr Bharat Singh

is a practicing Advocate in Delhi High Court and Veteran Indian Navy Officer.

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