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If a satellite falls on your house, space law protects you – but there are no legal penalties for leaving junk in orbit

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On May 8, a piece of space junk from a Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled back to Earth and landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. A year ago, in May 2020, another Chinese rocket met the same fate when it plummeted out of control into the waters off the West African coast. No one knew when or where either of these pieces of space junk were going to hit, so it was a relief when neither crashed on land or injured anyone.

Space debris is any nonfunctional human-made object in space. As a professor of space and society focused on space governance, I’ve noticed that there are three questions the public always asks when falling space debris gets into the news. Could this have been prevented? What would have happened if there was damage? And how will new commercial companies be regulated as space activities and launches increase exponentially?

For space law to be effective, it needs to do three things. First, regulation must prevent as many dangerous situations from occurring as possible. Second, there needs to be a way to monitor and enforce compliance. And finally, laws need to lay out a framework for responsibility and liability if things do go wrong. So, how do current laws and treaties around space stack up? They do OK, but interestingly, looking at environmental law here on Earth may give some ideas on how to improve the current legal regime with respect to space debris.

What if a rocket landed on your house?