If a satellite falls on your house, space law protects you – but there are no legal penalties for leaving junk in orbit
Falling space debris is unlikely to destroy property or kill a person. Petrovich9 / iStock via Getty Images
On May 8, 2021, a piece of space debris fell uncontrollably from a Chinese rocket back to Earth and landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. A year ago, in May 2020, another Chinese missile suffered the same fate when it spiraled out of control off the West African coast. Nobody knew when or where any of these space debris would hit, so it was a relief not to crash on land or injure anyone.
Space debris is a non-functioning man-made object in space. As a professor of space and society with an emphasis on space governance, I've found that the public asks three questions when falling space debris hits the news. Could this have been prevented? What would have happened if there had been damage? And how are new trading companies regulated when space activities and launches increase exponentially?
For the Space Act to be effective it must do three things. First, regulation must prevent as many dangerous situations as possible from occurring. Second, there must be a way to monitor and enforce compliance. Finally, laws must set a framework for responsibility and liability when things go wrong. How do the current laws and treaties around space stack up? They are fine, but interestingly, a look at environmental law here on earth can give some ideas on how the current legal system regarding space debris can be improved.
What if a missile lands on your house?
A large white missile on a launch pad.
Imagine, instead of landing in the sea, the latest Chinese rocket crashed into your home while you were working. What would you be allowed to do under current law?
Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 Liability Convention, both of which were passed by the United Nations, this would be a government-to-government issue. The treaties state that states are internationally responsible and liable for damage caused by a spaceship - even if the damage was caused by a private company from that state. Under these laws, your country would not even have to prove that someone did something wrong if a space object or its components caused damage to the earth's surface or to normal aircraft in flight.
If a piece of space junk from China were to land on your house, your country's government would claim compensation through diplomatic channels and then pay you - if they chose to do so at all.
While the chances of a broken satellite landing on your home are slim, space debris has fallen on land. In 1978 the Soviet Cosmos 954 satellite fell in a barren region of the Canadian Northwest Territories. When it crashed, it spread radioactive debris from its on-board nuclear reactor over a large stretch of land. A joint Canadian-American team began clean-up operations that cost over $ 14 million ($ 11.5 million). The Canadians demanded $ 6 million from the Soviet Union, but the Soviets only paid $ 3 million in the final settlement.
This was the first and only time the Liability Convention was applied when a spaceship from one country crashed in another. When applying the Liability Convention in this context, there were four relevant standards. Countries have a duty: to warn other governments of debris; Include any information they might get about an impending crash. Clean up any damage caused by the vehicle. and compensate your government for any injuries.
However, if you owned a small orbiting satellite that was hit by a piece of space junk, you and your government would have to prove who is to blame. However, there is currently no globally coordinated space management system. With tens of thousands of tracked debris in orbit - and a multitude of smaller, untraceable pieces - it would be very difficult to figure out what destroyed your satellite.
An image of the earth surrounded by a cloud of yellow dots.
Space pollution is the bigger problem
Current space law has worked so far as there have been few issues that have been dealt with diplomatically. As more spacecraft fly, the risks to property or life will inevitably increase, and greater use may be made of the Liability Convention.
Risks to life and property aren't the only concerns about a busy sky, however. While launch providers, satellite operators, and insurance companies grapple with the problem of space debris due to its impact on space operations, space sustainability advocates argue that the space environment itself has value and is at much greater risk of damage than individuals on Earth.
The common view is that the degradation of the earth's environment from pollution or mismanagement is bad because of its negative impact on the environment or on living things. The same goes for space, even if there is no clear direct victim or physical harm. In the Cosmos 954 settlement, the Canadians claimed that since the Soviet satellite deposited dangerous radioactive waste on Canadian territory, this constituted “property damage” within the meaning of the Liability Convention. However, since Article 2 of the space treaty states that no state owns space or celestial bodies it is not clear whether this interpretation would apply in the event of damage to objects in space. Space is evolving into a new frontier on which the tragedy of the community can unfold.
Removing existing large objects from orbit that might collide with each other would be a good starting point for governments. However, if the United Nations or governments agree on laws setting out the legal ramifications for the generation of space debris in the first place and the penalties for failure to follow best practices, this could help reduce future pollution of the space environment.
Such laws would not have to be invented from scratch. The 2007 United Nations Space Debris Reduction Guidelines already address the issue of debris prevention. While some countries have transposed these guidelines into national regulations, global implementation is still pending and there are no legal ramifications for non-compliance.
The likelihood of a person being killed by a falling satellite is close to zero. The current space law provides a pretty good framework for dealing with such an event. But just like at the beginning of the 20th century on earth, current laws focus on the individual and ignore the overall picture of the environment - albeit a cold, dark and unfamiliar one. Adapting and enforcing the space law to prevent actors from polluting the space environment - and holding them accountable for breaking those laws - could help avoid a junk-filled sky.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Timiebi Aganaba, Arizona State University.
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Timiebi Aganaba does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and does not consult or obtain funding from stocks. He has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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