Who is Responsible for the Damage Caused by Falling Space Debris?

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A portion of the space shuttle Columbia fell onto Texas resident Mac Powell’s ranch after the shuttle broke up in 2003. Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images

While a baseball through your front window may seem like a bad day, imagine having a piece of debris from a rocket crash through your roof. This is exactly what happened to a homeowner in Fuquan, China, when a nozzle from a rocket’s first stage crashed through their roof a few hours after a satellite launch. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident in China. The risk of nearby homes being hit is a concern for the Taiyuan Space Launch Center in the Shanxi province.

With numerous reports of rocket malfunctions and debris falling on homes in China, it’s important to know who is responsible for the damage caused. The scariest incident was in 2002, when a 22-pound piece of rocket fell on a young boy, causing slight injuries. The local government paid the family nearly the average Chinese monthly salary to cover medical bills.

Scientist Bill Ailor stands behind a piece of space debris found in Saudi Arabia. Ailor and colleagues run a debris “graveyard” in California.
Glenn Koenig/Getty Images

In the U.S., NASA launches are designed to ensure the rocket’s debris path is offshore, and boats are kept out of that zone. Michael J. Listner, an attorney and founder of Space Law and Policy Solutions, says that launches have been delayed in the past because boats have wandered into closed-off areas. After a SpaceX rocket exploded in 2015, officials warned beachgoers that toxic debris could wash ashore, with one piece found in the Bahamas.

If a piece of rocket debris hits your house, available remedies depend on where you are and where the debris originated.

Foreign debris falls are a concern all over the world, and it’s important to understand who is responsible for the damage caused by falling space debris.

According to Listner, the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects governs situations where a part of a rocket or fragments of a disintegrating satellite launched in one country fall to Earth in another country. This agreement was established in 1972 and states that the launching state is responsible for paying compensation for damages caused by its space objects on Earth’s surface or to aircraft, and for damages due to its faults in space. Diplomats from the affected countries negotiate a solution under this agreement.

In 1978, when the Soviet Union’s COSMOS 954, a nuclear-powered spy satellite, fell over nearly 80,000 square miles of northern Canada, the government paid Canada $3 million in compensation and provided nuclear experts to assist with the cleanup of radioactive debris. However, if a piece of a Chinese rocket hit a house in the US, the affected party wouldn’t have the right to sue the Chinese government directly. The US government would be responsible for negotiating compensation with the Chinese embassy in Washington.

If a piece of space debris falls from a rocket launched in the same country you live in, your homeowner’s insurance will most likely cover the damage, but this may not be the case in countries like China, where the legal system and insurance coverage differ.

If a piece of rocket falls and hits you directly, you may need to file a lawsuit against NASA or the private sector space company that launched the object to receive compensation. The only known instance of such an accident occurred in 1997 when a woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was hit by a palm-sized hunk of metal that was part of a fuel tank from a Delta II rocket.

In 1979, when pieces of NASA’s Skylab fell on an Australian town, the local sheriff jokingly issued the space station a ticket for littering.


1. What is space junk?

Space junk, also known as orbital debris, refers to the objects that are flying in space but no longer serve any useful purpose. These objects can range from old satellites, discarded rocket parts, and other debris that is left behind from space missions.

2. How does space junk fall to Earth?

Space junk typically falls to Earth when it loses its altitude or is affected by the Earth’s atmosphere. When it falls to Earth, it can cause damage to buildings, vehicles, and other structures.

3. Who is responsible for the damage caused by space junk?

The responsibility for the damage caused by space junk varies depending on the circumstances. If the space junk is from a government-owned satellite or rocket, then the government may be responsible. If the space junk is from a commercial entity, then that entity may be responsible. However, in many cases, it can be difficult to determine who is responsible.

4. What should I do if space junk damages my property?

If space junk damages your property, you should contact your insurance company to determine if your policy covers this type of damage. You should also contact the authorities and report the incident. They may be able to help you determine who is responsible for the damage.

5. Can I sue someone if space junk damages my property?

You may be able to sue someone if space junk damages your property. However, as mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for the damage. You should consult with a lawyer to determine your legal options.

6. How can we prevent space junk from causing damage?

There are several ways that we can prevent space junk from causing damage. One way is to design spacecraft and satellites with the end-of-life in mind, so that they can be disposed of safely. Another way is to develop technologies that can remove space junk from orbit.

7. Who pays for the removal of space junk?

The responsibility for the removal of space junk is currently a topic of debate. Some argue that it should be the responsibility of the entities that put it there in the first place. Others argue that it should be a shared responsibility among all spacefaring nations. Currently, there is no clear answer to this question.

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