Is it possible to sue for events in space?
Hogan Lovells is a legal practice that gives strategic and legal advice to operators, investors, manufacturers and other parties working with cutting-edge satellite systems and traditional space projects.
Steven Kaufman and Scot Anderson, who work for the firm, have been following the latest SpaceX news with interest. On March the 4th, 2022, it is expected that ‘a piece of SpaceX rocket will be smashing into the lunar surface at approximately 5,700 miles per hour (9,173 kph), where it should create a decent sized crater – one that’s got a diameter of about 19 meters (62 feet).’
This has attracted a lot of angry comments on social media. ‘A lot of which went along the lines of: Is this legal? Can SpaceX be held liable for its space junk hitting the Moon?’
“Theoretically, yes,” says attorney Steven Kaufman.
Space treaties in place if other space equipment hit
Scot Anderson explains, ‘if, for example, SpaceX’s booster were to crash into China’s lunar rover. In that case, two international treaties would come into play,’ The relevant law for such a situation can be found in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects of 1972.
The attorneys don’t think that any case will arise from Falcon 9 simply crashing into the Moon, as “Nobody owns the Moon.”
The lawyers in other articles have made a brief reference to the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, which was founded in 1993, but have avoided any speculation whether that organization will take action in this event. It remains to be seen what action may be taken by the committee in the future
As the Committee is founded by NASA and the crash is being treated by them as a scientific learning opportunity it is hard to see any space agency taking action on this particular event.
An end to space junk
The law firm indicates that ‘governments have started cracking down on debris, with regulatory bodies requiring space companies to develop debris mitigation plans.’
No scientist has commented that Falcon 9’s impact on the Moon will have any consequences on Earth. Still, if it did, there is a past case in 1978 that lawyers would look to that involved the Soviet satellite Kosmos 954 breaking up in the atmosphere and spilling radioactive debris over northern Canada. ‘The Canadian government billed the Soviet Union for compensation for the damages, and the two governments eventually settled on an amount of 3 million Canadian dollars.’
Future missions to the Moon by companies such as NASA will be governed by the Artemis Accords, a treaty that contains provisions for mitigating space junk. Companies such as SpaceX will not be allowed to get away with this for much longer.
The law firm envisages that ‘it may not be too long before incidents like accidental space crashes do end up in court.‘