Final Frontier: Space Collisions and Liability

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Written By admin at Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft

Today the world — or, more precisely, a clutch of nerds, we among them — watched as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. made history by attaching the first private spacecraft to the international space station.

Of course, every seminal event has legal implications, or at least the promise of them.

Timothy Nelson, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, has considered a future in which private spacecraft and their jetsam clog Earth’s orbit, greatly increasing the chances of a collision.

Space vehicles, as a rule, are expensive. KIA hasn’t entered the game yet. So let’s say you’re a telecom company whose satellite crashes into a piece of space junk cast off by a SpaceX craft. It’s broke, and you want someone, be it SpaceX or the U.S. government, to pay.

“There’s a very undeveloped area of law concerning the liability of parties arising from space debris,” Mr. Nelson said.

The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space — aka the Outer Space Treaty — and the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects — aka the Space Liability Convention — were written with the assumption that claims would be resolved between states, he said.

If a busted U.S. satellite slams through the roof of the Kremlin, the U.S. pays for a new roof.

But when a private space vehicle crashes into another, “it’s not clear how you attribute liability,” said Mr. Nelson.

Maritime law could offer a guide, Mr. Nelson said. When a private vessel flying the Stars and Stripes clips another private vessel flying the Union Jack, neither government is liable. So should we assume the U.S. is liable for a privately controlled spacecraft?

Mr. Nelson noted that concerns about space junk were sharpening. ”There are some who maintain that we are very close to overload in space junk and that something needs to be done,” including ”deorbiting” certain space vehicles, he said.

But who would decide which to snatch out of orbit? Mr. Nelson said he didn’t know. “But it’d be a great contract.”

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