Imagine waking up in your yard to find a smoldering piece of Equipment, still smoking and sizzling after shooting at Earth from space. While this is an unlikely case, space debris does occur. Some of the scientific instruments we launch into the stratosphere return to Earth, causing a commotion and causing chaos.
This is much more likely if you live near a launch site, such as Cape Canaveral, Florida. Still, NASA recently issued a warning about 6,000 tonnes of low-orbit space debris clogging up ever-larger areas miles above the Earth. While it might seem that all errant Equipment orbiting the Earth has been forgotten about, there is some responsibility for damage caused by space debris.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 Liability Convention, both recognized by the United Nations, stipulate that governments bear financial responsibility for space junk harm, even if a private corporation launched the device in question. It appears to be a simple problem, but it becomes more complicated when put into effect. For example, if a piece of a NASA satellite slammed into your house, NASA will cover the costs.
However, when multiple governments are involved, it becomes a bit of a bureaucratic mess, as Timiebi Aganaba, professor of Space and Society at Arizona State University, recently wrote for The Conversation.
The apparent solution for the general public—who are unlikely to ever deal with this problem—is to contact NASA, which has historically been more than willing to foot the bill for any harm caused by their spacecraft. According to NASA public relations officer Beth Dickey, the United States is “completely liable to pay compensation for harm caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight” under the 1972 Convention on Liability.