The 1976 Registration Convention

The 1976 Registration Convention, or Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which obligates Parties to register launches of all objects launched into Earth orbit or into outer space with an appropriate national space agency, was considered and negotiated by the COPUOS Legal Subcommittee from 1962. It was adopted by the General Assembly in 1974, General Assembly Resolution 3235 (XXIX), opened for signature on January 14, 1975 and entered into force on September 15, 1976. This 1976 Registration Convention, drawn up by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), was the fourth treaty exclusively dedicated to outer space.

Only the 1979 Moon Agreement was still to follow, which for general lack of success however heralded the end of a two-decade time-span in which COPUOS managed to develop the framework for international space law as far as binding legal instruments were concerned. The text of the 1976 Registration Convention was, after some years of discussion and drafting, adopted in New York on November 12, 1974, and made public through a Resolution of the General Assembly, Resolution 3235(XXIX), which contained the text in the Annex and opened the Convention for signature as per January 14, 1975. It entered into force quite rapidly on September 15, 1976, after the fifth instrument of deposit had been received with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Building upon the desire expressed by States in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue Agreement and the 1972 Liability Convention to make provision for a mechanism that provided States with a means to assist in the identification of space objects, the 1976 Registration Convention expanded the scope of the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space that had been established by Resolution 1721B (XVI) of December 1961 and addressed issues relating to States Parties responsibilities concerning their space objects. The Secretary-General was, once again, requested to maintain the Register and ensure full and open access to the information provided by States and international intergovernmental organisations.

The United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space

Since 1962, the United Nations has maintained a Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Originally established as a mechanism to aid the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in its discussions on the political, legal and technical issues concerning outer space, the evolution of international space law resulted in space object registration becoming a means of identifying which States’ bear international responsibility and liability for space objects.

Following multi-year discussion among States, the 1976 Registration Convention or Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space entered into force in 1976. States and international intergovernmental organisations that agree to abide by the Convention are required to establish their own national registries and provide information on their space objects to the Secretary-General for inclusion in the United Nations Register. Responsibility for maintenance of the Register was delegated by the Secretary-General to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). As required under the treaty, UNOOSA publicly disseminates the information provided as United Nations documents, which are available through its website and through the United Nations Official Document System (ODS). To date over 88% of all satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecraft and space station flight elements launched into Earth orbit or beyond have been registered with the Secretary-General.

The Official Document System (ODS) is an online database of UN documents that was first launched in 1993 and updated in 2016. ODS has full-text, born-digital UN documents published from 1993 onward, including documents of the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and their subsidiaries, as well as administrative issuances and other documents. The database also includes scanned documents published between 1946 and 1993, including all resolutions of the principal organs, all documents of the Security Council and the General Assembly Official Records. Documents are available in the official languages of the UN; some documents are also available in German.

The 1976 Registration Convention

A registry of launches has been maintained by the UN Secretariat since 1962, in accordance with UNGA Resolution 1721 B (XVI). Since the Convention’s entry into force in 1976, another registry of launches has been established for information received from Member States and intergovernmental organisations that are Parties to the Convention. The Convention was adopted by the General Assembly in its Resolution 3235 (XXIX).

The Convention also supplements the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, as well as the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects and the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, both of which address technical and legal issues relating to international cooperation in the use and exploration of outer space exclusively for peaceful purposes. The 1976 Registration Convention requires States to furnish to the United Nations with details about the orbit of each space object.

Under this Convention, all objects launched into Earth orbit or beyond into outer space must be recorded with an appropriate national space agency. Information on the object launched into space, including the date and territory or location of the launch, essential orbital parameters, and the function or role of the object in space is to be communicated to the UN Secretary-General as soon as practicable.

Whenever a space object launched into earth orbit or beyond is marked with a designator or registration number, the State of registry shall notify the UN Secretary-General of this fact when submitting the information regarding the space object. In such case, the Secretary-General shall record this notification in the Register.

The 1976 Registration Convention or Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space states the following:

The States Parties to this Convention,

Recognizing the common interest of all mankind in furthering the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,

Recalling that the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, of 27 January 1967 affirms that States shall bear international responsibility for their national activities in outer space and refers to the State on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried,

Recalling also that the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 22 April 1968 provides that a launching authority shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to the return of an object it has launched into outer space found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority,

Recalling further that the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects of 29 March 1972 establishes international rules and procedures concerning the liability of launching States for damage caused by their space objects,

Desiring, in the light of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, to make provision for the national registration by launching States of space objects launched into outer space,

Desiring further that a central register of objects launched into outer space be established and maintained, on a mandatory basis, by the Secretary-General of the United Nations,

Desiring also to provide for States Parties additional means and procedures to assist in the identification of space objects,

Believing that a mandatory system of registering objects launched into outer space would, in particular, assist in their identification and would contribute to the application and development of international law governing the exploration and use of outer space,

Have agreed on the following:

Article I

For the purposes of this Convention:

(a) The term “launching State” means: (i) A State which launches or procures the launching of a space object; (ii) A State from whose territory or facility a space object is launched;

(b) The term “space object” includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof;

(c) The term “State of registry” means a launching State on whose registry a space object is carried in accordance with article II.

Article II

1. When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry.

2. Where there are two or more launching States in respect of any such space object, they shall jointly determine which one of them shall register the object in accordance with paragraph 1 of this article, bearing in mind the provisions of article VIII of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, and without prejudice to appropriate agreements concluded or to be concluded among the launching States on jurisdiction and control over the space object and over any personnel thereof.

3. The contents of each registry and the conditions under which it is maintained shall be determined by the State of registry concerned.

Article III

1. The Secretary-General of the United Nations shall maintain a Register in which the information furnished in accordance with article IV shall be recorded.

2. There shall be full and open access to the information in this Register.

Article IV

1. Each State of registry shall furnish to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, as soon as practicable, the following information concerning each space object carried on its registry:

(a) Name of launching State or States;

(b) An appropriate designator of the space object or its registration number;

(c) Date and territory or location of launch;

(d) Basic orbital parameters, including: (i) Nodal period; (ii) Inclination; (iii) Apogee; (iv) Perigee;

(e) General function of the space object.

2. Each State of registry may, from time to time, provide the Secretary-General of the United Nations with additional information concerning a space object carried on its registry.

3. Each State of registry shall notify the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to the greatest extent feasible and as soon as practicable, of space objects concerning which it has previously transmitted information, and which have been but no longer are in Earth orbit.

Article V

Whenever a space object launched into Earth orbit or beyond is marked with the designator or registration number referred to in article IV, paragraph 1 (b), or both, the State of registry shall notify the Secretary-General of this fact when submitting the information regarding the space object in accordance with article IV. In such case, the Secretary-General of the United Nations shall record this notification in the Register.

Article VI

Where the application of the provisions of this Convention has not enabled a State Party to identify a space object which has caused damage to it or to any of its natural or juridical persons, or which may be of a hazardous or deleterious nature, other States Parties, including in particular States possessing space monitoring and tracking facilities, shall respond to the greatest extent feasible to a request by that State Party, or transmitted through the Secretary-General on its behalf, for assistance under equitable and reasonable conditions in the identification of the object. A State Party making such a request shall, to the greatest extent feasible, submit information as to the time, nature and circumstances of the events giving rise to the request. Arrangements under which such assistance shall be rendered shall be the subject of agreement between the parties concerned.

Article VII

1. In this Convention, with the exception of articles VIII to XII inclusive, references to States shall be deemed to apply to any international inter-governmental organization which conducts space activities if the organization declares its acceptance of the rights and obligations provided for in this Convention and if a majority of the States members of the organization are States Parties to this Convention and to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

2. States members of any such organization which are States Parties to this Convention shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that the organization makes a declaration in accordance with paragraph 1 of this article.

Article VIII

1. This Convention shall be open for signature by all States at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Any State which does not sign this Convention before its entry into force in accordance with paragraph 3 of this article may accede to it at any time.

2. This Convention shall be subject to ratification by signatory States. Instruments of ratification and instruments of accession shall be deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

3. This Convention shall enter into force among the States which have deposited instruments of ratification on the deposit of the fifth such instrument with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

4. For States whose instruments of ratification or accession are deposited subsequent to the entry into force of this Convention, it shall enter into force on the date of the deposit of their instruments of ratification or accession.

5. The Secretary-General shall promptly inform all signatory and acceding States of the date of each signature, the date of deposit of each instrument of ratification of and accession to this Convention, the date of its entry into force and other notices.

Article IX

Any State Party to this Convention may propose amendments to the Convention. Amendments shall enter into force for each State Party to the Convention accepting the amendments upon their acceptance by a majority of the States Parties to the Convention and thereafter for each remaining State Party to the Convention on the date of acceptance by it.

Article X

Ten years after the entry into force of this Convention, the question of the review of the Convention shall be included in the provisional agenda of the United Nations General Assembly in order to consider, in the light of past application of the Convention, whether it requires revision. However, at any time after the Convention has been in force for five years, at the request of one third of the States Parties to the Convention and with the concurrence of the majority of the States Parties, a conference of the States Parties shall be convened to review this Convention. Such review shall take into account in particular any relevant technological developments, including those relating to the identification of space objects.

Article XI

Any State Party to this Convention may give notice of its withdrawal from the Convention one year after its entry into force by written notification to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Such withdrawal shall take effect one year from the date of receipt of this notification.

Article XII

The original of this Convention, of which the Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish texts are equally authentic, shall be deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who shall send certified copies thereof to all signatory and acceding States.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF the undersigned, being duly authorized thereto by their respective Governments, have signed this Convention, opened for signature at New York on the fourteenth day of January, one thousand nine hundred and seventy-five.

A General Assembly Resolution from December 2007 that was accepted by consensus recommended that the data should be extended to include: (i) Coordinated Universal Time as the time reference for the date of launch; (ii) Kilometres, minutes and degrees as the standard units for basic orbital parameters; (iii) Any useful information relating to the function of the space object in addition to the general function requested by the 1976 Registration Convention; (iv) The geostationary orbit location, if appropriate; (v) Any change of status in operations (e.g., when a space object is no longer functional); (vi) The approximate date of decay or re-entry; (vii) The date and physical conditions of moving a space object to a disposal orbit; (viii) Web links to official information on space objects.

Concluding remarks

When evaluating the 1976 Registration Convention in the larger context of the corpus juris spatialis internationalis (in particular the other four treaties sus-mentioned) and its development over time, the following further picture emerges. Compared to its three elder counterparts, the 1976 Registration Convention did not draw overly widespread ratification. On the other hand, the 1976 Registration Convention distinguishes itself positively from the 1979 Moon Agreement not just by numbers but also by the importance of the states involved: in contrast to the latter treaty, most of the important space powers are party to the 1976 Registration Convention.

This “middle position” is probably symptomatic for the Convention: a relatively simple and down-to-earth treaty consisting of just twelve articles elaborating one rather straightforward concept: the registration of space objects. Whilst it would, on the one hand, from that perspective seem to provide few disincentives for States to ratify, ratification on the other hand would be directly relevant especially for those States actually launching space objects into outer space, which still constitute a minority amongst the States of this world. From a slightly different perspective, the 1976 Registration Convention is closest to the 1968 Rescue Agreement and the 1972 Liability Convention, in that each of these are essentially elaborating one specific article of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which, as the framework treaty, provides for the fundamental principles.

The 1976 Registration Convention elaborates Article VIII of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which already posits both the concept of registration of space objects, and its major consequence, the possibility to exercise jurisdiction over the space objects so registered.