Space debris is any nonfunctional human-made object in space. As a professor of space and society focused on space governance, I’ve noticed that there are three questions the public always asks when falling space debris gets into the news. Could this have been prevented? What would have happened if there was damage? And how will new commercial companies be regulated as space activities and launches increase exponentially?
For space law to be effective, it needs to do three things. First, regulation must prevent as many dangerous situations from occurring as possible. Second, there needs to be a way to monitor and enforce compliance. And finally, laws need to lay out a framework for responsibility and liability if things do go wrong. So, how do current laws and treaties around space stack up? They do OK, but interestingly, looking at environmental law here on Earth may give some ideas on how to improve the current legal regime with respect to space debris.
What if a rocket landed on your house?
Imagine that, instead of landing in the ocean, the recent Chinese rocket crashed into your house while you were at work. What would current law allow you to do?
According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and 1972 Liability Convention – both adopted by the United Nations – this would be a government-to-government issue. The treaties declare that states are internationally responsible and liable for any damage caused by a spacecraft – even if the damage was caused by a private company from that state. According to these laws, your country wouldn’t even need to prove that someone had done something wrong if a space object or its component parts caused damage on the surface of the Earth or to normal aircraft in flight.
Basically, if a piece of space junk from China landed on your house, your own country’s government would make a claim for compensation through diplomatic channels and then pay you – if they chose to make the claim at all.
While the chances are slim to none that a broken satellite will land on your house, space debris has crashed onto land. In 1978, the Soviet Cosmos 954 satellite fell into a barren region of Canada’s Northwest Territories. When it crashed, it spread radioactive debris from its onboard nuclear reactor over a wide swath of land. A joint Canadian-American team began a cleanup effort that cost over CAD$14 million (US$11.5 million). The Canadians requested CAD$6 million from the Soviet Union, but the Soviets paid only CAD$3 million in the final settlement.
This was the first – and only – time the Liability Convention has been used when a spacecraft from one country has crashed in another. When the Liability Convention was put into use in this context, four governing norms emerged. Countries have a duty to: warn other governments about debris; provide any information they could about an impending crash; clean up any damage caused by the craft; and compensate your government for any injuries that might have resulted.
There have been other instances where space junk has crashed back to Earth – most notably when Skylab, a U.S. space station, fell and broke up over the Indian Ocean and uninhabited parts of Western Australia in 1979. A local government jokingly fined NASA AUS$400 (US$311) for littering – a fine that NASA ignored, though it was eventually paid by an American radio host in 2009. But despite this and other incidences, Canada remains the only country to put the Liability Convention to use.
However, if you owned a small orbiting satellite that got hit by a piece of space junk, you and your government would have to prove who was at fault. Currently, though, there is no globally coordinated space traffic management system. With tens of thousands of tracked pieces of debris in orbit – and multitudes of smaller, untrackable pieces, figuring out what destroyed your satellite would be a very difficult thing to do.
This Article firstly Publish on astronomy.com