Space Police: What Happens If A Crime Happens In Space?

Recently, the International Space Station has been plagued with claims that there’s been a crime that happened aboard it, pushing people to ask: Who’s in charge when a crime happens in space?

While it’s amusing to think of space police who would come to the rescue aboard their patrol space ships to ask those aboard questions and start conducting a “space investigation,” it’s actually, although certainly not as amusing.

That’s because first of all, no country or political entity owns space, and by default, it’s considered as foreign waters (hence astronaut Mark Watney calling himself a “space pirate” in Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel ‘The Martian’). Furthermore, our planet’s atmosphere effectively stops any state line or political boundaries that tie us down on Earth. So then, what sort of jurisdiction would come into play in the event that a situation considered as a crime happens up above?

Well, according to Article VIII of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, "A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body." 

So what does this mean? Simple, if a crime is committed inside a spacecraft, then the nation who owns that spacecraft would have jurisdiction over the case, and would have the right to investigate the suspect. Simple enough, right?

The tricky part however, is that the “space crime” supposedly happened aboard the International Space Station, which as the name implies, doesn’t belong to a single nation. To complicate things further, different modules on the station are owned by different agencies, as do the astronauts.

According to Frans von der Dunk, a space lawyer and professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln however, following this logic would mean that whoever owns the part of the ship where the crime happened would have jurisdiction.

Intergalactic Offense?

This week, criminal allegations were made against a U.S. Astronaut, which according to legal advisers, just further shows how complicated the current system is. That’s because although an intergovernmental agreement has been set in place since 1998, this is the first time that such an event occurred.

“The accusation is really a novelty in the sense that, for the first time, you have someone doing something in space, or more precisely from space, that could raise criminal issues," von der Dunk said.

The NASA astronaut in question, Anne McClain, has denied the allegations made by her estranged spouse, and has stated that she will remain silent while the investigation proceeds.

Per lawyers, the event just proves that criminal jurisdiction in space should be studied more, the further we go forward with our deep space explorations.

ISS In cooperation with our partners, the International Space Station will be extended likely to 2020 or beyond enabling this vital orbiting laboratory to reach its full potential.