Who is responsible for falling space debris?

Research output: Contribution to journalMagazine ArticleProfessional


Space is an area beyond national jurisdiction. Like the high seas, space is governed through international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty and four other international space treaties that
followed set out a framework and key principles to guide responsible behaviour. The 1972 Liability Convention specifies a compensation regime that would apply in many circumstances of damage caused by space debris falling to Earth, as well as
when satellites collide in space. This legal regime imposes liability on ‘launching states’ for damage caused by their space objects,
which includes an absolute liability regime when they crash to Earth as debris. The liability under international space law is therefore imposed on countries, even where the space object or debris that causes the damage is privately owned and/or operated. The Liability Convention has only been previously invoked once – for the Kosmos Many processes play a role in disc formation, but angular momentum is the principal quantity. The
protostar and its disc are formed from the same cloud composed of gas and dust, which initially has some rotation – it has angular momentum, which is a measure of the direction and speed that
something is rotating. The cloud collapses due to its own gravity. However, angular momentum hinders this process, and the cloud collapses into a rotating ‘pancake’ rather than a sphere. If the
central region contains enough dense gas, then a rotating protostar will form. The gas and dust surrounding the new star
continues to rotate. The amount of angular momentum that this gas and dust contains is one of the primary quantities that will determine its fate. If there is too little angular momentum,
then the gas and dust will fall onto the star and increase its mass. However, if there’s enough angular momentum then the gas and dust will 954 incident of 1978 – and therefore may not be regarded as a powerful disincentive. However, it is likely to come into play in the future in a more crowded space environment, and with more uncontrolled re-entries. Of course, this legal framework applies only after the damage occurs. In addition, there are other regulatory ‘rules of the road’ that deal with space governance agreed through the United Nations Committee on the
Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including practical guidelines for debris mitigation and long-term sustainability of space activities.
In reality, a globally coordinated space traffic management system will also be vital to avoid collisions that would result in loss of control of satellites, leaving them to tumble helplessly in orbit or fall back to Earth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76
JournalAll About Space
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2021


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