Alert users of Starlink have spotted an interesting component in Starlink’s Terms and Conditions document: SpaceX and Starlink refuse to recognize the authority of Earth-based nations on other planets like Mars. SpaceX apparently plans to define a set of governing principles that might apply to any future Martian settlement that it has a hand in.
The document states, “For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonisation spacecraft, the parties recognise Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.”
Closer to Earth, it’s a different story and SpaceX will follow the regulations laid out by the United States and State of California when operating Starlink in Earth orbit.
Is the Outer Space Treaty a Factor?
When the Outer Space Treaty came into force in 1967, perhaps its signatories did not anticipate that private entities who weren’t already established government contractors would become major players in space anytime soon. It only established that signatories would be liable for any attempts to launch hardware by parties based within their borders that caused damage in other countries.
Such damage does not happen often. One notable incident had one American launch that failed and rained debris on Cuba, which fortunately only killed a cow. Cuba was compensated for the damage caused.
More recently, the Federal Communications Commission fined a private company called Swarm $900,000 for an unauthorized launch of experimental communications satellites. This fine was apparently a response to concern that the unauthorized satellites could cause damage to other satellites in the increasingly crowded space around Earth.
So Earth-based nations may use the Outer Space Treaty to claim jurisdiction in cases where there is a risk of damage to assets owned by other nations or private entities within those nations. SpaceX might, for instance, be very annoyed in the unlikely-but-possible event that Swarm’s unauthorized satellites damage any of the more than 800 Starlink satellites that it currently has in orbit.
At the very least, it would pay to at least make certain that annoying paperwork is filled out appropriately. It can reassure the Federal Communications Commission to show that the company involved has enough attention to detail to avoid crashing into somebody else’s satellite or killing another cow.
What About Beyond Earth Orbit, Though?
That’s a fair question. In the event that someone on Mars does something that Earth-based nations don’t like, who would have jurisdiction, and how far would they be willing to go to enforce their laws on another planet? If someone swipes the Sojourner Rover, brings it back to their hab, and restores it, how far would the United States of America be willing to go to reclaim its property?
From a practical standpoint, future Martians may have to get used to a fair amount of autonomy in their activities. Send a radio distress signal back to Earth and it can take as long as forty minutes to get a radio reply, assuming that any control center back on Earth has fast reactions. An ideal launch window to Mars only opens up once every 26 months and most probes take six months to get from Earth to Mars. And then there’s the little annoying fact that most missions to Mars cost billions of dollars and politicians can decide that it’s not worth the expense at any time even if the hardware is already being built. If an Earth nation’s law enforcement arm does not already have an established presence on Mars, there might not be much that it can do in a timely or cost-effective manner.
So any reply to interplanetary piracy might amount to little more than attempting to censor the pirates’ backers on Earth, if applicable. That would leave future Martians more or less on their own when it comes to settling disputes.
That can leave it wide open for SpaceX to claim that any future Martian settlements that it backs are independent of Earth rule once the settlements are established and reasonably self-sustaining, and Earth might not be willing to do much about it besides make some noise and issue some fines. The Starlink Terms and Conditions seems to indicate that SpaceX is already thinking ahead and making preparations for such an event.