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: New support for converging black holes in Virgo constellation

Related Stories

The moons of Jupiter

September 15, 2015

Jupiter was appropriately named by the Romans, who chose to name it after the king of the gods. In addition to being the largest planet in our Solar System – with two and a half times the mass of all the other planets combined ...

The moons of Saturn

September 14, 2015

Saturn is well known for being a gas giant, and for its impressive ring system. But would it surprise you to know that this planet also has the second-most moons in the Solar System, second only to Jupiter? Yes, Saturn has ...

What are asteroids made of?

September 14, 2015

What are asteroids made of? Asteroids are made mostly of rock—with some composed of clay and silicate—and different metals, mostly nickel and iron. But other materials have been found in asteroids, as well.

What are asteroids?

September 10, 2015

4.6 billion years ago, our solar system formed from a collection of gas and dust surrounding our nascent sun. While much of the gas and dust in this protoplanetary disk coalesced to form the planets, some of the debris was ...

How to get rid of a satellite after its retirement

September 1, 2015

Researchers at University of La Rioja (Spain) have developed a new method to eliminate artificial satellites in highly elliptical orbits when they finish their missions. The methodology, which reduces both cost and risk, ...

Recommended for you

Blue skies, frozen water detected on Pluto

October 8, 2015

Pluto has blue skies and patches of frozen water, according to the latest data out Thursday from NASA's unmanned New Horizons probe, which made a historic flyby of the dwarf planet in July.

Orbiter views Mars surface fractures

October 8, 2015

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter often takes images of Martian sand dunes to study the mobile soils. These images provide information about erosion and ...

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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.