The recent news that Nasa's six-tonne satellite UARS was falling back to earth and could land anywhere, and on anyone, caused much speculation about the odds of being hit by falling space debris. Although the satellite landed in the ocean, not causing any harm or damage, the question remains: who would have been legally responsible?
Had you or your property been hit by a piece of space debris, who would have been liable for compensation? The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by the Russian Federation, the UK and the USA, says that "States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects".
There have been several past cases in which one country has paid another compensation for damage caused by fallen satellites. In the seventies, the USSR paid £1.8million to Canada for a crashed satellite in the Northern Territories and the US Government was fined around £250 for littering by the Australian Government.
However, in the UK, according to the 1986 Outer Space Act, liability can fall to a company, and even an individual who took decisions for the company. Also, liabilities are essentially limitless meaning that insurance premiums are sky-high for UK companies.
Chancellor George Osborne is concerned that the expense is proving detrimental to economic growth in the UK space sector.
The space industry contributes around £7.5billion a year to the UK economy. It keeps some 24,900 employed directly and another 60,000 indirectly.
Chancellor Osborne plans to put an upper limit on liability as part of a wider range of initiatives intended to encourage growth in the UK space industry.
This does not mean that private individuals who are affected by falling space debris cannot claim compensation. Most household insurance would cover claims for damage caused by fallen satellites.
So if, by some amazing chance (Nasa places the odds at 1 in 3,200) you do get hit by a chunk of falling satellite, or your property is damaged, you should be covered by your insurance. No doubt this will be good news for those worried about the next falling satellite, Rosat, which should arrive on Earth in the next few weeks.
Read more on the story (The Guardian)
Read 'What is meant by international waters or airspace?' (FindLaw)
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