While data protection covers much of her daily focus, Laura Keogh is one of Ireland’s leading lights when it comes to the intriguing world of space law.
Utter the phrase ‘space law’ to someone and they might think that you’re talking about the title of a cheesy Hollywood crime thriller set in the distant future.
But, for a small band of lawyers across the world, it is the new frontier in which whole careers are being built – and their numbers are only set to increase.
One such rising star is Irish woman Laura Keogh who is currently based at MHL-Law, splitting her time between Munich and Dublin. Her speciality is working with start-ups and businesses to provide necessary legal help in the space sector.
As she readily admits, the area of space law is not as well known as, say, family law, and this is reflected not only in the general public, but in law firms, too.
Space law on the fringe
Her foray into the field came after being on Erasmus from her alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, and, after a five-week programme, she was hooked.
“Of all the international areas, I found space quite interesting as there’s not many people in it and there’s still a lot of cross-jurisdictional issues,” she said in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com.
But, even after focusing on the topic for her master’s degree, conducting a thesis on it and heading to China to present it, there were few law firms willing to let her practise it.
According to Keogh, many of them would actually laugh at the idea, suggesting that she keep it firmly on the back-burner while she focuses on more pressing topics, such as data protection (which she is still heavily invested in).
“I eventually found [MHL-Law] that is really, really kind and supported me through the final qualification process and let me do the work I needed to do in space law,” she said.
As Keogh alluded to, space law, by its nature, requires international cooperation with agencies spread across the globe, ranging from major ones such as NASA or ESA, to smaller – but rapidly growing – ones, such as the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, there are only five treaties that cover space law as set out by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS), with the defining one simply referred to as the ‘Outer Space Treaty’ (OTS), signed into law half a century ago and adopted by 104 countries.
Other smaller treaties include the Moon Treaty, which promises that everything recovered from the moon does not belong to one nation. Only a few countries, including Australia and Mexico, are party to it, possibly because there is so much potential wealth and resources for the world’s superpowers to exploit.
Ireland’s big issue
For Keogh, the OTS is her regular point of reference when working within the Irish space sector, but our recent ambitions have put a potential legal spanner in the works.
With the launch of EIRSAT-1 – Ireland’s first satellite – in the coming years, the country’s growing space sector could face massive legal problems if it decides to follow in its footsteps.
“[Ireland has] agreed to the OTS and, within that, there’s an obligation to have an overview and a legal policy in place when things are going to be launched,” she said.
“We don’t have that in Ireland. EIRSAT-1 is done by universities and isn’t commercial but if it was, there’s no protection for companies and no legislation in place. That is a big issue.”
This includes 60 companies and 13 third-level research groups that will secure €300m in Government and EU funding between 2014 and 2020.
It is this challenge that Keogh finds herself dealing with on a regular basis as, while she is Ireland’s national point of contact on the Space Generation Advisory Council, we are not a member of COPUOUS.
This effectively leaves Ireland on the periphery when it comes to participating in space law, something she describes as “very unfortunate”.
Productive technical requirements meeting for #eirsat1 with @ucddublin and @tcddublin students. Busy summer ahead! @ESA__Education pic.twitter.com/SSZx6Pia9j
— Lorraine Hanlon (@LorraineHanlon1) June 14, 2017
If we did join COPUOUS, Keogh argued, we could also join the Space Assets protocol, which acts as a legal registry for companies and their assets, similar to how Ireland has established itself as a base for the aircraft leasing industry.
“That will be a method for Ireland to come out of the shadow, and another method for public funding to fund things privately for the space sector,” she said.
So why has Ireland fallen behind when it comes to enacting laws to secure a niche but burgeoning sector?
Keogh describes it as a “lack of awareness” as only a small number of people in Government and Enterprise Ireland are working with the Irish space sector, with no indication of any immediate plan to create a national space law.
“We had a recent setback due to the governmental change, which really impacted us because we got to know the one person who was dealing with the space sector and now it’s a different person so we had to start all over again,” she said.
However, Keogh is trying to push this forward once again in the hope that Ireland can join once the EU ratifies a bill put through in 2012.
New era of space travel
Perhaps for inspiration, Keogh suggested Ireland look to fellow EU member Luxembourg, which has established itself as a world leader in space law with hundreds of companies. It passed a law this month that allows for asteroid mining companies such as Planetary Resources to keep whatever plunder they take from the cosmos.
On top of that, the private space sector is booming with SpaceX, Boeing and others ushering in a whole new era of space travel and business.
All of this is good news for space law with Keogh saying it’s as good a time as any for those with an interest in the subject to become involved.
She cited endeavours such as Space Belt, which plans to create a somewhat literal cloud service where supposedly unhackable satellites are launched into space and can store information from Earth, with the target market being both governments and companies.
“Over the next 10 years, when all these things become live, I think space law will become quite important because it will be even more part of our daily lives,” Keogh said.
“With the mass adoption of the internet of things, everything’s going to be linked to a satellite.”
Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.