Space Torts: Applying Nuisance and Negligence to Orbital Debris – Note by Luke Punnakanta

From Volume 86, Number 1 (November 2012)

In 2011 and 2012 alone, a defunct NASA satellite, a defunct German satellite, and a defunct Russian space probe all crashed to Earth. While falling space junk gained more media attention, space debris that remains in orbit is even more dangerous. Manmade space junk is polluting the orbits around the Earth, causing damage to satellites and other spacecraft, and threatening future space activities. And the space debris problem is getting worse. For example, in 2007, millions of new pieces of space debris were likely added to the already significant body of debris when China intentionally destroyed a defunct weather satellite.

Allocating liability for damage caused by space debris is also problematic. International treaties regarding space liability are ambiguous and underdeveloped. Only one claim has ever been brought under an international space liability treaty, and it was eventually settled, eliminating the opportunity to test the treaty’s effectiveness. And even if a clear set of laws existed, the liable party that created the debris is often unidentifiable due to the limited ability to track space debris.

New technology may help solve this identity issue. A new tracking system for space debris, Space Fence, may be able to track smaller debris and help determine who created it. With the possibility of fewer identity issues hindering space debris damage claims from arising, space-liability law should be further developed.



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