What Happens If Someone Gets Murdered on the Moon

Last week, Canada proposed a change to its criminal code that explicitly states that if a Canadian were to commit a crime in space then they would be prosecuted for it as if they had committed it in Canada.

The change to the law comes as Canada is set to take part in the Lunar Gateway project, a component of NASA's Artemis program that will involve setting up a space station orbiting the moon. A Canadian astronaut is also expected to participate in the upcoming Artemis II mission that will see a human crew travel around the moon.

The proposed amendment reads, according to Canadian news outlet CBC: "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 offence is deemed to have committed that act or omission in Canada."

The change to the law may seem obvious but is perhaps a welcome development in the otherwise murky and ambiguous business of space law.

Buzz Aldrin on Moon
Buzz Aldrin photographed walking on the Moon in July, 1969. NASA/Getty

A reader may take Canada's criminal law amendment as a suggestion that up until now a Canadian could float around in space murdering and stealing all they like. Existing space standards suggest this would not be the case, nor would it be the case for a U.S. astronaut.

In the 1967, when the Soviet-U.S. space race was in full swing and astronauts were preparing to set foot on the moon for the first time, dozens of countries signed up to the United Nations Outer Space Treaty—formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

The Outer Space Treaty encompasses all sorts of space issues that remain relevant today, including use of weapons of mass destruction in space, damage liability, and contamination.

Article VIII of the treaty specifically discusses legal jurisdiction in space. It states that any person who is launched into space or on a celestial body is under the jurisdiction and control of the country who put them there.

The article makes no reference to criminal law per se, but does at least suggest that a country would not simply shrug its shoulders if one of its astronauts were to go on a crime spree on the moon.

Within the International Space Station (ISS) specifically, astronauts are subject to the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA). This directly addresses a theoretical situation in which an astronaut were to commit a crime about the station.

Article 22 of the IGA states: "Canada, the European Partner States, Japan, Russia, and the United States may exercise jurisdiction over personnel in or on any flight element who are their respective nationals."

It goes onto state that if an astronaut on the ISS "affects the life and safety" of another member or causes damage to equipment owned by another member then the perpetrator shall "consult with such State concerning their respective prosecutorial interests".

The affected state may "exercise criminal jurisdiction" over the perpetrator.

In short, space law is quite vague and largely untested. A moon murder would likely lead to unprecedented legal issues and how it played out may depend on the nationalities of those involved.