Imagine you wake up to a smoldering piece of machinery in your yard, still smoking and sizzling after screaming towards Earth from space. This is an extremely unlikely scenario, but it remains true that space junk happens. Of all the scientific instruments we launch into the stratosphere, some of it, on occasion, comes plummeting back from whence it came, only to cause ruckus and confusion.
This is far more likely if you live close to a launch site, like Cape Canaveral, Florida, but NASA recently sounded the alarm about 6,000 tons of low-orbit space junk clogging up evermore territory miles above the Earth. So if you find yourself in the seemingly improbable situation of dealing with space debris that lands where you live—or worse, damages your home—how do you deal with it?
Does a defunct satellite become a cosmological souvenir? Are there any legal protections afforded? Here’s how you might approach dealing with space junk if it ever comes landing on your doorstep.
Who’s responsible for space junk?
It might seem that all errant machinery orbiting the Earth has been forgotten about, but there is actually a degree of liability when it comes to damage caused by space junk. Two pieces of legislation both recognized by the United Nations—the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 Liability Convention—both stipulate that governments shoulder the financial responsibility for space junk damage, even if a private company launched the unit in question.
It’s an issue that sounds straightforward, although it gets thornier when it comes down to practice. For example, if a piece of a NASA satellite were to careen into your home, the space agency would foot the bill. But as Timiebi Aganaba, professor of Space and Society at Arizona State University recently wrote for The Conversation, it becomes a bit of a bureaucratic mess when multiple governments become involved.
Basically, if a piece of space junk from China landed on your house, your own country’s government would make a claim for compensation through diplomatic channels and then pay you – if they chose to make the claim at all.
This kind of event is extremely rare. There’s only been one time that the Liability Convention has been used, Aganaba notes, when a “Soviet Cosmos 954 satellite fell into a barren region of Canada’s Northwest Territories” in 1978. And while the Canadian government ultimately sought a $6 million re-compensation for the cleaning up of radioactive materials spilled from the craft’s nuclear reactor, the Soviets only settled for $3 million.
What should you do with space junk?
For the general public—who are all unlikely to ever deal with this problem—the natural recourse is to contact NASA, which is traditionally more than happy to foot the bill for any damage caused by their spacecrafts. The 1972 Convention on Liability stipulates that the U.S. is “absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight,” NASA public affairs officer Beth Dickey told Live Science in 2011.
While that route seems straightforward enough—especially if you have the irrefutable evidence of wayward space debris destroying your property—it’s less clear how authorities are planning to deal with the bottleneck of junk currently piling up in space.
A recent paper from the University of Colorado offers a policy proposal, suggesting that an “orbital use fee” of $235,000 per satellite could de-incentivize operators to add to the logjam in low-orbit. While such a proposal might be more enticing than the technological solutions currently used to corral space junk, it isn’t quite clear how it’d play out (no government can lay claim to ownership of space, for example).
In the meantime, while the space junk continues to amass, it’s good to be aware of how to deal with it in the unlikely event that it lands at your door.