The Law of Gravity

  • E-mail E-mail
  • Google+
  • Reddit Reddit

When I saw the film Gravity[1] recently, I was left with more legal than plot questions; mainly, who, hypothetically, would be responsible for the disaster that occurred?

For those of you who have not seen the film, the significant plot points are as follows (spoiler alert): (1) multiple United States astronauts are sent to space to work on the Hubble telescope; (2) while working on the telescope, Russia destroys one of its orbiting satellites; and (3) the debris of the destroyed satellite begin to wreak havoc on satellites and space stations orbiting Earth: the debris destroys the international space station, the Chinese space station, the Hubble telescope, and kills multiple people.[2] With all of this destruction, the question becomes: can the aggrieved parties hold Russia responsible and, if so, how?

In reality, this is situation is not new to Russia. In 1978, a Soviet Union satellite, Cosmos 954, crashed onto Canadian soil.[3] The satellite contained a nuclear power source that caused over 14 million Canadian Dollars worth of damage.[4] Canada sought half of the costs from the Soviets pursuant to the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.[5]

While Russia and Canada eventually settled, it was the first claim brought pursuant to the Liability Treaty.[6] The Liability Treaty arose out of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.[7] The Liability Treaty imposes absolute liability upon States when they launch a space object and the object causes damage[8] to the surface of the earth or to an aircraft in flight.[9] In the event that a State’s space object causes damage in space, the State is only liable if the damage is its fault or the fault of someone the State is responsible for.[10]

The latter scenario describes the damage that Russia caused in Gravity. However, there has never been a space-collision case litigated under the Liability Treaty.[11] Moreover, there is no clear indication of how to proceed with this type of claim.[12] At a basic level, there is a practical difficulty with even proving what State caused in-space collision damage.[13] There is no internationally accepted system for tracking space objects and even domestic systems lack the sophistication to identify the source of debris with the reliability necessary to attribute fault.[14] The identification problem results in most damaged States never filing a claim.[15]

Beyond the practical limitations, the Liability Convention does not define the term fault nor does it prescribe a standard of care.[16] There is no customary law existing for the regulation of space debris.[17] However, even if a “foreseeability” standard is used to determine fault, practical problems arise. “[F]or almost all spacecraft, once the satellite is placed in orbit, the launching State has neither the ability to foresee a future collision nor the ability to make the substantial manoeuvre to avoid one.”[18]

Moreover, it appears that “[t]he difficulties associated with the identification of space debris and the practical problems encountered in proving fault in many cases make recourse under the Liability Convention largely futile.”[19]

Therefore, in the Gravity scenario, while a claim can be made against Russia pursuant to the Liability Treaty, the question of “how” one could succeed upon such a claim remains unanswered—perhaps the sequel will delve into the ensuing litigation.

[1] Gravity (Warner Bros. Pictures 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Andre G. DeBusschere, Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, 3 J. Int'l L. & Prac. 97, 99 (1994).

[4] Id.

[5] Id. See Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, Mar. 29, 1972, 24 U.S.T. 2389, 2392, 961 U.N.T.S. 187 [hereinafter, “Liability Treaty”].

[6] DeBusschere, supra note 3.

[7] Id.See Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, Jan. 27, 1967,18 U.S.T. 2410.

[8] Defined as: “loss of life, personal injury or other impairment of health; or loss of or damage to property of States or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international intergovernmental organizations.” Liability Treaty, supra note 5, art. I.

[9] Id. art. II.

[10] Id. art. III.

[11] Mike Wall & Leonard David, Legal Action Against China Unlikely in Space Junk Crash with Russian Satellite, Space (March 12, 2013), available at; see also, Meghan R. Plantz, Orbital Debris: Out of Space, 40 Ga. J. Int'l & Comp. L. 585, 606 (2012).

[12] James P. Lampertius, The Need for an Effective Liability Regime for Damage Caused by Debris in Outer Space, 13 Mich. J. Int'l L. 447, 456 (1992).

[13] Plantz, supra note 11, at 605.

[14] Lampertius, supra note 12, at 459.

[15] Plantz, supra note 11, at 605.

[16] Id.

[17] Lampertius, supra note 12, at 456.

[18] Id. at 458 (quoting Raymond T. Swenson, Pollution of the Extraterritorial Environment, 25 A.F.L. Rev. 70, 80 (1985)).

[19] Lampertius, supra note 12, at 455.

Posted by Joshua L. Lucas (Josh) on Tue. January 14, 2014 12:31 PM
Categories: Space exploration

Comments for this post are now closed.

UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106

If you are seeing this, you are either using a non-graphical browser or Netscape 4.x (4.7, 4.8, etc.) and this page appears very plain. If you are using a 4.x version of Netscape, this site is fully functional but lacks styles and optimizations available in other browsers. For full functionality, please upgrade your browser to the latest version of Internet Explorer or Firefox.