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Tort Liability for Space Debris III: Future Issues

by Cameron Worrell

This post is part of the student blogger project from the summer session of Space Security Law.

Cameron Worrell is a second year student at the University of Mississippi School of Law pursuing a certificate in Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law.

One of the major future issues for space debris liability involves debris neutralization—either by removal or disintegration. As Michael Listner elaborates, the law of space is woefully inadequate to cover the removal of space debris because there is no equivalent to maritime salvage laws. Not only are non-functioning satellites still properties of the original owner, but so are any pieces of debris, as both are classified as “space objects.” If any international, governmental, or non-governmental organization wants to remove space debris, they have to either get approval for each piece of debris (which would require identifying each of thousands of pieces) or get blanket approval—which is unlikely. The current international situation is a catch-22. The law makes space debris removal impracticable, so states have not developed the tech for it, so they have no incentive to change the law.

Furthermore, any institution willing to tackle the problem of space debris would face its own liability issues. If they ever mistakenly removed an active satellite, moved a piece of debris into the path of an active satellite, or removed an inactive satellite without permission from the owner (over intellectual property concerns, for example), they would be liable for those damages. This makes space debris removal a high-risk, low-reward prospect that becomes a tragedy of the commons. With little incentive for an individual party to remove space debris belonged to other parties, all space parties may stubbornly stick to the current state of affairs until space debris becomes too serious a problem to ignore. By then, however, certain areas of space could potentially be rendered unusable by debris bombardment. The only viable solution is an accord granting an international organization exemption from liability when removing space debris, but getting sovereignty-obsessed states to all agree on such a pact is a daunting task.

As Listner concludes, he mentions an understated problem: what is “space debris”? The term is applied to both natural and unnatural satellites, as well as space objects like asteroids and comets. Additionally, space debris technically includes active satellites as well as inactive satellites. Any international agreement to allow an organization to remove space debris would, as it stands, encompass active satellites. There is currently no international consensus on the definition of space debris, a problem which needs to be addressed before further steps can be taken.