Expert: Satellite collision shows need for more regulation of 'space debris'

February 17, 2009

Last week's collision between U.S. and Russian space satellites has prompted questions over who is at fault while highlighting the need for stronger international regulation of space debris, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and internationally renowned space law expert said.

Frans von der Dunk said international agreements dictate that if a space object causes damage to the earth or to another spacecraft, the country that launched the object is liable. But the collision that took place Feb. 10 is the first known instance that two full-fledged space objects from different countries have crashed into one another in space.

The collision was between a commercial Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite. The two objects slammed into each other over northern Siberia and created a cloud of wreckage -- "space debris" -- that officials worry could threaten other unmanned spacecraft.

"If the collision is between two space objects, as is the case here, reciprocal liability is to be based upon fault," von der Dunk said. The key question, though, will be what "fault" means in this context, when two full-fledged spacecraft simply collided, he said.

Von der Dunk said that will lead to a number of other legal questions that are emerging in the wake of the collision:

* Was Russia at fault because it allowed its satellite to fly around for more than a decade without any means to control its flight path?

* Was Iridium at fault because it had the actual station-keeping navigational capabilities that would have allowed it to stay clear from a collision course?

* Can Russia claim damages when its satellite had been defunct for more than a decade?

* Were either the United States or Russia able to foresee the serious risk of collision -- and if so, would either country's failure to act put them at fault?

Meanwhile, the crash unequivocally shows the need for further international regulation of space debris and the mitigation of its effects, von der Dunk said. When the Russian satellite became defunct in the 1990s, there was no international obligation on Russia to ensure the spacecraft would be properly moved out of harm's way, either into a junkyard orbit or downward to let the Earth's atmosphere burn the satellite.

"This, obviously, should change," von der Dunk said. While requirements are gradually being established for the responsible disposal of satellites no longer of practical use, that process has been very slow, he said.

"Hopefully, now that at least the first cow is out of the barn, the international community will become serious about the need to close the door."

Provided by University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Explore further: Big PanDA tackles big data for physics and other future extreme scale scientific applications

Related Stories

A giant impact: Solving the mystery of how Mars' moons formed

July 4, 2016

Where did the two natural satellites of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, come from? For a long time, their shape suggested that they were asteroids captured by Mars. However, the shape and course of their orbits contradict this hypothesis. ...

Europe develops self-removal technology for spacecraft

June 13, 2016

A new European project has an ambitious goal of cleaning up space for future generations. The Technology for Self-Removal of Spacecraft (TeSeR) program, introduced in May 2016, will develop a prototype for a module that will ...

Setting a satellite to catch a satellite

July 8, 2016

The target is set: a large derelict satellite currently silently tumbling its way through low orbit. If all goes to plan, in 2023 it will vanish – and efforts against space debris will have made a giant leap forward.

Unknown alien rock found in Swedish quarry

June 14, 2016

A morsel of never-before-seen alien rock has been dug up in a limestone quarry in Sweden, where it had lain deeply buried for about 470 million years, scientists said Tuesday.

Recommended for you

Test for damp ground at Mars streaks finds none

August 24, 2016

Seasonal dark streaks on Mars that have become one of the hottest topics in interplanetary research don't hold much water, according to the latest findings from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars.

China unveils 2020 Mars rover concept: report

August 24, 2016

China has unveiled illustrations of a Mars probe and rover it aims to send to the Red Planet at the end of the decade in a mission that faces "unprecedented" challenges, state media said on Wednesday.

Fossilized rivers suggest warm, wet ancient Mars

August 23, 2016

Extensive systems of fossilised riverbeds have been discovered on an ancient region of the Martian surface, supporting the idea that the now cold and dry Red Planet had a warm and wet climate about 4 billion years ago, according ...

What do aliens look like? The clue is in evolution

August 19, 2016

Speculating about what aliens look like has kept children, film producers and scientists amused for decades. If they exist, will extra terrestrials turn out to look similar to us, or might they take a form beyond our wildest ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

GrayMouser
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2009
There should be a law... Or at least funding for a study... I have the proposal right here in case your interested...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.