Who do you sue if you’re hit by a satellite?
A defunct satellite from the European Space Agency the size of a Chevy Suburban is set to plunge to Earth somewhere between Sunday night and Monday afternoon -- and experts say there's no way to precisely determine where it will crash.
GOCE, or Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, ran out of gas last month and has been steadily sinking towards the Earth. As the planet rotates, the satellite whizzes over nearly every point on Earth. Experts expect it to plunge harmlessly into the oceans that cover 70 percent of the surface of the planet. But what if it doesn’t? What if it takes out your old Accord?
“Basically, governments are responsible for their own spacecraft,” explained Marcia S. Smith, president of the Space and Technology Policy Group in Arlington, Va. “[If] you could prove a piece of GOCE hit your Honda, you could go to your government to make a claim,” she told
     WHERE IS IT NOW? Track the GOCE satellite here
But don’t put the ESA’s lawyer on speed dial just yet. Most of the fragments of the satellite are likely to burn up on re-entry, said Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office according to an ESA blog.
“Most of these fragments will completely burn up. A small fraction of the initial spacecraft mass -- about 20 percent or 200 kilograms [440 pounds] -- is expected to reach ground, distributed across dozens of fragments, spread over a sizable re-entry ground swath.”
400 pounds of smoking metal spread over a "sizeable swath" is nothing to sniff at. But should one of those fragments land on U.S. soil, you’re fully covered, according to the United Nations. The U.N.’s Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects was created in September of 1972, and has been ratified by 88 countries and signed by 22 nations as of January 1, 2013.
“A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight,” reads the policy. And the GOCE satellite was launched from Russia, so that country would be responsible, said Mark Hopkins chairman of the executive committee of the National Space Society.
While space objects reenter the atmosphere all the time, few pieces survive the fiery trip and many of those end up in the ocean, Smith said. But sometimes, they do. Russia's Cosmos 954 satellite crashed in Canada in 1978, with a radioactive energy source. That sounds more alarming than it actually was; the element was “vanishingly small” when it hit ground, Hopkins said. But Canada did try to get money back from the Russians -- and they did pay up, he said.
“It was a lot less than they wanted,” he told
Indeed, the Canadian government asked for $6 million to cover cleanup and "future unpredicted expenses," according to Matthew Kleinman's "The Little Book of Space Law." Russia paid half that. It's up to a government to bring charges, according to the policy book.
"Had a Canadian citizen been injured by the Cosmos 954 debris, his only recourse would have been to either convince the Canadian government to bring a claim against the Soviet Union on his behalf or bring a claim on his own behalf in a national court with appropriate jurisdiction. If he won his case, he would then have had to hope that the Soviet government honored the court's judgment," the book notes.
So if you hear a crash in the night, rest assured that the responsible party will most likely pick up the tab. Just make sure to take a picture.