If astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) run afoul of the law more than 200 miles (321 kilometers) above Earth, their fate usually depends on where in the orbital lab the incident occurred.
That legal framework will become a bit more complicated when a new European Space Agency (ESA) module becomes part of ISS this month.
The space station currently exists as a legal patchwork of about 16 sovereign territories — modules and hardware belonging to the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan — joined together to form one orbital research platform.
Each nation has legal authority over its part of the space station, as stated in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
But no single European nation's law will hold sway over the ESA's Columbus laboratory module, which is slated to launch into orbit aboard the space shuttle Atlantis Dec. 6, and there is no one overarching European law.
However, astronaut lawbreakers won't languish in limbo.
Earlier this year, European legal experts agreed on a set of legal rules for Columbus during an conference entitled "Humans in Outer Space — Interdisciplinary Odysseys."
Should tempers flare and astronauts end up in fisticuffs inside Columbus, the perpetrator's fate would be decided by the criminal laws of his or her nation.
But if the brawl occurred in an American, Russian or Japanese section of ISS, the perpetrator's fate could be decided by the criminal laws of his or her victim's nation.
"They decided that if somebody performs an activity which may be considered criminal, it is in the first instance his own country which is able to exercise jurisdiction," said Frans von der Dunk, of the International Institute of Air and Space Law at the University of Leiden, in a written statement.
Although astronauts are an exceptionally well-behaved group, other legal concerns may arise.
An invention created by an enterprising astronaut on ISS will be patented in the nation that has jurisdiction over the module where work took place, not the nation of the inventor.
Innovators onboard Columbus will have a choice of patenting their work in either Germany or Italy — although Europe-wide patent agreements make this distinction less important.
Civil liability on the space station is another issue. If someone on Earth gets hit by a car, they can sue the offending driver.
If astronauts accidentally damage equipment in Columbus while doing their usual duties on the space station, they typically don't have to fear a lawsuit.
"We are all there together, we all have the same purpose to make the ISS into a big success and we don't want that attitude, that mentality, to be disturbed by the threat of one party suing the other," von der Dunk said.
The ESA decision follows a previous cross-waiver agreement that the spirit of international cooperation is more important than minor legal squabbling.
When a solar array on the space station ripped during space shuttle Discovery's mission in October, the involved astronauts and agencies simply planned and executed a repair job instead of pointing fingers.
But "there are a number of exceptions" to the cross-waiver for civil liability, noted Andre Farand, a senior administrator in ESA's legal department, in an e-mail interview.
For instance, injury or death suffered by individual astronauts could still lead to legal claims against the organization which caused the harm.
What murky areas remain in space law may come from the growing presence of private interests, whether through space tourism or even astronauts participating in commercial activities on ISS, said Farand.
For the few space tourists who have visited ISS, Russia proposed the legal rules that other ISS partners then reviewed and agreed on, according to NASA's legal department.
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