Satellites, spent rocket stages, fragments from disintegration, erosion, and collisions: welcome to the reality of our cluttered orbit. With over 9000 tons of 'space junk' circling Earth, the concern over who is responsible for the wreckage if it crashes back to Earth is increasingly pertinent. The question remains: when the heavens send more than just rain and meteors down on us, who bears the liability for these off-world artefacts?
The cosmos, it seems, has a litter problem. NASA estimates there are more than 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball circling Earth at speeds up to 28,163 kilometers per hour. At such velocity, even a tiny fragment can cause catastrophic damage upon impact. With our reliance on space technology for a myriad of daily activities, this crowded orbit not only poses an existential threat to our satellite infrastructure but also raises serious safety and liability issues on Earth.
The Liability Convention states that a 'launching state' is absolutely liable for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft, and liable for damage due to its faults in space. However, the devil is in the details: defining 'fault' and 'damage' proves challenging, as does the process of positively identifying the debris. For an innocent third-party nation hit by space debris, proving the fault of the launching state can be a Herculean task.
One of the few instances of damage caused by space debris was the re-entry of the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite Cosmos 954 in 1978, which scattered radioactive debris over a large area of Canada. The Soviet Union eventually paid Canada three million Canadian dollars in an ex gratia settlement. However, this remains more an exception than a precedent. In general, the legal complexities and diplomatic sensitivities surrounding space debris mean that most incidents are dealt with through diplomatic channels rather than in court.
As the number of satellites and, therefore, potential space junk increases, thanks to 'mega-constellations' like SpaceX's Starlink, the issue of space debris liability will only become more urgent. International space law must evolve to keep up with technological advancements and emerging challenges. While countries and corporations strive to create sustainable practices and technologies to clean up space, it's equally critical to enhance the legal framework that governs liability for space debris.
The question of liability for space junk remains a celestial quandary. As nations and private entities push the boundaries of space exploration and commercialisation, the law must grapple with these new realities. It's a shared sky, and hence, a shared responsibility. Effective solutions will require global cooperation, evolving legal frameworks, and cutting-edge technology. The universe is our final frontier, and ensuring we treat it with respect is critical. After all, what goes up might indeed come crashing down – and when that happens, we need to know who will be picking up the bill.
NASA Orbital Debris Program Office. (2021). Frequently Asked Questions.
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. (1967).
Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. (1972).
McDowell, J. (2021). Satellite Catalog. Jonathan's Space Report.
Listner, M. (2021). The Issues and Challenges of Space Debris Removal. The Space Review.
Hanlon, M. (2023). Law and the Final Frontier: Space Debris Issues. Law Gazette.