The Law of Gravity

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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: Customary International Law

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