Humans are explorers, so it is no surprise that space has always been the next frontier. But what laws apply to outer space? Is it the next Wild West where no rules apply?

Duncan Blake, a lecturer from UNSW Canberra, emphasises that space is not a lawless frontier. The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Activities and Operations (Woomera Manual) aims to clarify the application of existing international laws to military space activities, from benign to hostile.

“The Woomera Manual is not about creating new laws but clarifying how existing laws apply in a space context,” Duncan explained.

“There hadn't been a lot of discussion about how international law on the use of force, and the laws of armed conflict might apply to space activities, and there was no serious legal commentary saying that these laws didn’t apply, and some legal commentary saying that they do apply.”

The manual covers three key areas:

  1. It explains that international law applies to the space domain, including military activities.
  2. It describes how legal rules apply in space.
  3. It provides definitive legal answers to questions arising from current and foreseeable military space activities, such as whether commercial satellites used for military purposes may become lawful targets.

The absence of clear laws for outer space could have dramatic effects on modern life, which heavily relies on space infrastructure like satellites.

“We have committed ourselves to a rules-based global order on Earth and we must extend that commitment to the space domain too, especially as modern life now depends heavily on space infrastructure,” said Duncan.

Military forces have developed means not just to protect, harden and defend their space capabilities, but also to deny an adversary the use of their space capabilities in times of tension or outright conflict. Anti-satellite missiles and nuclear detonations in space could create debris fields and electromagnetic pulses, causing widespread satellite destruction.

“Clarifying the legal rules for space activities in times of military tension and conflict won’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen, but it will mitigate the worst excesses of unconstrained warfare in space,” Duncan noted.

The Woomera Manual is a collaborative work involving the University of Adelaide, University of Exeter, University of Nebraska, and UNSW Canberra, completed over six and a half years. Duncan, the UNSW Canberra representative on the Governance Board, was heavily involved in various aspects, including funding, administration, and drafting parts of the manual. His Master of Laws thesis in 2013 was the genesis of the Woomera Manual.

“We hope it will be used by operators, people working in military space units, commands and forces on the day-to-day operation of space infrastructure. But also by military commanders, key government decision-makers, policy workers, media, academics, military industry, students, and others.

“Ideally, it is an authoritative publication that draws together foundational source material evidencing the existence of legal rules, explaining their application, as well as where there is clarity and where there is not,” explained Duncan. 

The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Activities and Operations can be found here: