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Space Law: Liability for Space Debris

Space debris refers to man-made objects (or “trash”) that remain in space despite not having any purpose. Space debris has accumulated since the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. It consists of debris that floats around the solar system, with origins ranging from astronauts accidentally losing items like space gloves to fragments of spacecraft from collisions and explosions. Today, millions of pieces of space debris revolve around the Earth at a speed of around 36,000 kilometers per hour.

Eventually, circling space debris will work its way into the uppermost atmosphere of Earth. Our planet’s gravitational field will pull the space debris down, where most of it will burn up and vanish once it hits the Earth’s atmosphere. Some of it, however, will remain – posing a potential hazard for manned spacecraft or satellites. Debris from rocket launches pose an even greater risk to those down on Earth, where it can strike aircraft. When space trash causes damage, personal injury, and death, who could possibly be liable?

Commercial vs. State vs. Private Company Liability

Unfortunately, the current space laws do not really address issues and liabilities relating to space debris. Who might be liable for damages that space trash causes to other space and aircraft is relatively unclear. The Space Liability Convention, for example, holds that a company or institution will only be liable for its space debris if it was negligent in some way. What qualifies as negligence is subjective, because the convention does not define the ways in which a space object might cause damages. It is up to the injured party to figure out the “caused by” aspect of a claim.

If one does have grounds to bring a claim against someone else for space debris accidents, the at-fault party could be the commercial space industry, a federally owned company such as NASA, a state-owned company, or a private company such as SpaceX. Determining your defendant and knowing how to pursue damages can require help from an experienced aviation accident lawyer. Filing a claim against the government comes with stricter rules than those against private parties in California. Talk to an attorney to make sure don’t miss any important deadlines or filing requirements.

Can You File a Lawsuit Against SpaceX for Launch Debris in California?

SpaceX is a privately-owned company that designs, creates, sells, and launches spacecraft. Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, CEO and lead designer, SpaceX is running several active launches – including the recent launch of the Tesla Roadster with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX has three launch sites throughout the United States, including one at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara, California. In 2017, SpaceX made 18 successful launches. The 2018 launch campaign is even more ambitious, aiming for around 30 missions.

SpaceX’s plans for the future don’t only involve rocket launches, however. Elon Musk’s master plan also includes reducing the cost of public access to space, improving the reliability of launches, and developing more powerful rockets. It’s clear that SpaceX’s number of rocket launches (and amount of launch debris) will greatly increase in the upcoming years – potentially exposing the company to a greater number of lawsuits. Launch debris such as the falling nosecones of rockets can potentially strike aircraft on its way down, causing serious accidents.

Filing a lawsuit against SpaceX for space debris is a little different than one against the commercial industry or state-sponsored launch. Since SpaceX is a private company, injured parties can file claims directly against the establishment in accord with the state’s personal injury laws. For the claim to be successful, the plaintiff will have to prove that SpaceX was negligent in some way that caused the space debris collision. Space law is notoriously complex, making it very difficult for injured parties to recover for their damages in California. Always consult with an attorney about space debris claims to maximize your odds of success.

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