Update: China's Tianhe rocket stage reentered Earth's atmosphere on May 9. Debris from the rocket fell north of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
A 25-ton rocket the size of a blue whale is hurtling toward Earth, and no one really knows what’s going to happen next.
On April 29, China launched Tianhe—the core module for its new space station—on a Long March 5B rocket. Though the launch successfully sent Tianhe to its planned destination, the 30-meter-long (100 feet) core stage is now tumbling uncontrollably back to Earth. It’s unclear whether the rocket tried and failed to deorbit itself safely, or whether it even had the capability to do so to begin with.
Unsurprisingly, many space experts have been trying to figure out when and where the rocket will come down. Current predictions suggest it will make an uncontrolled reentry somewhere as far north as New York and as far south as New Zealand, sometime between May 8 and 10. It’s all pretty ambiguous, to say the least.
But despite all the unknowns, there’s no huge reason to panic. Most likely pieces of the core stage will wind up in the ocean, given that it covers most of the planet. But what happens if rocket debris causes some sort of damage or harm? Space lawyers say there’s legal precedent for China to face consequences, but like anything in world politics, the reality is much, much messier.
Is space junk illegal?
Technically, no. There’s no law that forbids pieces of rocket from crashing to Earth’s surface. But there are rules that dictate who is responsible when it comes to damage or injury from space junk.
According to Christopher Johnson, the space law advisor for Secure World Foundation, there are two key articles that explain this: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and 1972 Space Liability Convention. The Outer Space Treaty defines what international players are legally allowed to do in space, and the Liability Convention elaborates on who’s responsible for space objects that cause damage or harm.
“Liability for damage is not a finding that the state has somehow broken the law, but merely that it is answerable for the damage that results,” Johnson says, “and that a binding duty to pay compensation for that damage now exists for that state.”
Many countries—including the U.S., much of Europe, and China—have accepted the terms of the Liability Convention. This means that hypothetically, if part of this particular Long March 5B rocket caused damage in one of the countries signed onto the Liability Convention, that country could choose to invoke it and hold China financially responsible. That’s all theoretical; in reality, it’s not that simple.
Michael Listner, founder and principal at Space Law & Policy Solutions, says that invoking the Liability Convention is a political decision rather than a legal one.
“There could be a smoking big crater in your territory that causes a lot of damage,” Listner says, “But if it’s a policy decision not to invoke it, nothing would be done.”
In short, there are a host of reasons why a country would (or wouldn’t) choose to invoke the Liability Convention against an enemy (or ally), but at its core, citing the Liability Convention is a power play.
Has anyone ever used the Liability Convention?
Yes, exactly once, more than 40 years ago.
In 1978, Soviet reconnaissance satellite Kosmos 954 made an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Debris eventually crashed in Canada’s Northwest Territories, depositing toxic waste in the soil. The Canadian government decided to use the Liability Convention to make the U.S.S.R. pay for damages. Initially, Soviet officials denied the ill-fated satellite was theirs, but after negotiating, they agreed to pay 6 million Canadian dollars. It’s unclear whether the full amount was ever paid.
So if a piece of rocket crashes into my house, can I file a claim under the Liability Convention?
No, you can’t. If a country chooses to invoke the Liability Convention, all negotiations would be handled directly between embassies. Not even the United Nations would intervene or mediate.
That said, different countries have different rules for how to handle private property damage caused by some of their own space objects. In the U.S., if a government-owned rocket crashed into someone’s living room, the homeowner could theoretically sue the government under something called the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA). The FTCA is pretty complex, but in this case, it would allow a private citizen to pursue legal action against the U.S. government. To be compensated, the complainant would have to show that some sort of governmental wrongdoing—like a military rocket smashing into their living room—caused damage or harm.
In the extremely slim chance a piece of the Long March 5B rocket damages your house, because it’s not government property, your best shot at compensation would be through filing a claim with your homeowner’s insurance.
What happens now?
Nothing really—at least not yet.
In the best-case scenario, rocket debris winds up in the ocean and everything ends quietly. We’ll just have to wait and see.