It marks a dynamic new chapter of academic work for Professor de Zwart, a thought leader in law and technology, with an international profile in the fields of internet law and the regulation of access to and use of outer space.
“In essence, both these areas of law look at rapidly evolving technology, and both have come about from predominantly military funding, so they have more in common than you would think. Both areas are also inherently international – they are not things that stop at any domestic border,” she explains. “I’m trying to understand where the human being sits in amongst all this technology.”
As a leader of Flinders University’s Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance, she is examining commercial and defence uses of outer space. “I’m interested in places where there is very little existing law, which require more legal thought on how we use these technologies for the benefit of humankind,” says Professor de Zwart. “We also have to understand what human behaviour can do to undermine legal regimes that have been put in place.”
Her work in the past decade has focused on assisting space industries, with South Australia being this nation’s home of start-up industries in the space sector. “Along with the rapid growth of space entrepreneurs, we are seeing so much new possibility happening quickly, on a global scale,” she says. “New Zealand wasn’t a member of the Outer Space Treaty, yet in 2016 it announced its first space launch company. Australia has only had a Space Agency since 2018, yet now there is Space Command within Defence.
“As a legal researcher and an Intellectual Property lawyer, I firstly have to understand where the technology is going. It’s a very interdisciplinary area to be working in, so I take my cues from industry. Lawyers are not running the show; they are there to assist the growth of industry and understand what its needs are.”
As a foundation for ongoing space law discussion, Australia and another 18 countries are part of the Artemis Accords with NASA, which describes a shared vision for principles that are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. “This is a fascinating case study of how to bring together international partnerships,” says Professor de Zwart. “It’s in everybody’s interests that we get the rules right, and calibrated so that everyone wants to observe them.”
It involves exploring hypothetical situations, such as mining on other planets – whether it be for water, or some type of fuel or resource – and asking how much is okay, under what terms is mining okay, and what are the ethical and legal principles that have to apply. Another pressing question is defining a maximum number of low-orbit satellites before space becomes too congested and potentially too dangerous. Space tourism is also a consideration, in the wake of entrepreneurs Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson initiating their own space journeys, outside of national space programs. “What lessons do we learn from these ventures and what are the wider consequences of increased space tourism? We are asking whether we should regulate such activity and how we do it.”
While law is a highly adversarial area, where polemic views are often stretched to extremes, Professor de Zwart says a collegiate view exists among international space law practitioners. “We all love space and we want it to be a domain that is open and successful. The last thing anyone wants is a war in space, or for the moon to become a site of international conflict, so we are focused on sorting out legal nuance. We all want to make this work.”
Professor de Zwart is especially optimistic about Australia’s emerging space industry. “This is something the nation can be really proud of – and we have enormous space expertise at Flinders University.” She points to Associate Professor Alice Gorman’s international renown as a space archaeologist, with other experts in space policy, ethics and regulatory legal experts within the College of Business, Government and Law. “This is only the beginning of the Australian space industry. It’s still growing and finding its way. We have a lot of very exciting work ahead of us.”
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