- Thought the Mounties couldn’t get you in space? Think again.
Space is, as you’re surely aware, the final frontier. And as it is with any frontier, things can start getting a bit murky when you need to enforce laws.
For example, let’s say an astronaut committed some kind of a crime while traveling on a space shuttle. Under which country’s laws should they be tried? Did they even commit a crime since no country can claim space as its jurisdiction?
The Canadian government, for its part, has decided to be ahead of the curve in space crime. The country’s House of Commons just passed a new law that allows Canada’s law enforcement agencies to prosecute crimes committed in space — even on the Moon.
Of course, the law doesn’t apply to every astronaut, cosmonaut, taikonaut, or other space travelers. But Canadian citizens, at least, can no longer escape the long arm of the law by leaving Earth.
Its enforcement would require the criminal astronaut to return to terra firma before prosecution, though. Unless Canadian cops have their own space shuttle that we don’t know about.
What’s the legal speed limit for a moon buggy?
Even the Moon Isn’t Safe
As is usually the tradition with lawmaking, the Canadian space crime law wasn’t its own bill. It was part of a long (and admittedly boring) Canadian federal budget implementation bill, Bill C-19.
But once you get past the tax regulation and into the part about space, things get more interesting. The Canadian government enacted the law in the face of globally increasing space travel.
In particular, the new law comes ahead of the Artemis II project. Expected to launch in 2024, this will be the first crewed flight to the Moon in more than 50 years.
Although the Artemis II mission won’t land on the moon — only fly around it — the crew will include one Canadian astronaut. And Canada apparently wants to be ready in case they get up to no good.
Based on the new law, any crime a Canadian astronaut might commit will be regarded as if it was committed in Canada.
“A Canadian crew member who, during a space flight, commits an act or omission outside Canada that if committed in Canada would constitute an indictable [offense] is deemed to have committed that act or omission in Canada,” the law reads.
The law covers most of the places an astronaut could reasonably inhabit during a space mission. Neither the International Space Station (ISS), the planned Lunar Gateway space station, any transportation vessel, or the surface of the Moon are off-limits.
(Almost) the First Space Crime
It makes sense for terrestrial authorities to be prepared for crimes in space. With companies like SpaceX rapidly attempting to make space travel more common, it’s not a stretch to think one of the cosmic travelers might do something illegal.
In fact, we’ve already had our first scare of interplanetary crime. In August 2019, a NASA astronaut became embroiled in a legal scandal.
According to allegations, astronaut Anne McClain used a computer on the ISS to illegally access the bank account of her ex-wife, Summer Worden. At the time, the case was touted as the first “space crime.”
However, the accusations were revealed to only be a ploy by an embittered spouse. For lying to law enforcement officials, Worden was charged with a federal crime of her own.
Despite there actually not being a crime, the possibility was still there. The accusations were realistic enough that they prompted an internal NASA investigation.
If anything, they proved that space crime could happen — it just hasn’t yet.
Space is the Sea — Kind Of
Despite what you might think, though, space isn’t a completely lawless void. In fact, it’s governed by rules that are similar to how international waters work.
Just like the high seas, no governmental authority can claim space as their jurisdiction. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any laws in space.
There are five international treaties that govern conduct and legal matters in space. Each of them is managed by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.
Although there are questions about who exactly falls counts as space vessel “personnel” under the treaties, they have clauses that determine how space crimes are prosecuted. Essentially, spacefaring crooks would be subject to the laws of the country in which they hold citizenship.
There’s also a separate international agreement that applies to the ISS. All the signatory countries operating the space station agreed on a set of rules on how to manage crimes on the ISS.
“Canada, the European Partner States, Japan, Russia, and the United States may exercise criminal jurisdiction over personnel in or on any flight element who are their respective nationals,” the agreement reads.
So, it’s not like there is no law in space. But Canada is the first country to make sure even Moon isn’t a safe harbor for criminals.