12

The Chinese CZ-5B rocket launched last week had no support for controlled re-entry (or other managed demise), and is substantial enough that it can survive re-entry and hit the ground. This is unusual: these days, large launchers execute a planned "safe" re-entry, and crash into a defined area in the ocean. Last year, a launcher of the same type crashed in West Africa, having overflown New York. It's all over the news - where will it crash? (More details). Several decades ago, the US Skylab came down into Western Australia, which was, and is, sparsely inhabited so no damage was caused.

Hypothetically, space junk could crash in my garden and kill my dog. If it did, I would be expecting to instruct my solicitor to seek maximum damages!

But seriously, what are the implications of this? Does the fact that it's specifically a spacecraft make any difference? It's pretty reckless - does that element play a part?

(I'm in the UK. Does that make any difference? Actually the UK isn't under the flight path, so this is even more hypothetical in this case than you probably thought.)

My suspicion is that it would be considered a minor international incident, and China might pay some compensation if it seemed in their interests, and wouldn't if it didn't. It might be considered a more major incident if it hit, say, the Pentagon...

1
14

Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (of which both China and the UK are signatories) provides that all states are liable for damages caused by the objects they launch into space:

Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.

This was further elaborated upon in the Space Liability treaty of 1972 (of which, again, China and the UK are signatories.) In particular, it lays out a procedure under which one state can bring claim against another for any space junk that lands on its territory. So if a rocket lands in your back garden & crushes your schnauzer, it would be up to the Foreign Office to take it up with the PRC.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the only time such a claim has been filed under this treaty is when the Soviet satellite Kosmos 954 crashed in the Canadian Arctic in 1978. In that instance, the location was remote and the satellite was nuclear-powered, resulting in substantial cleanup costs.

Your options to bring suit on your own, without the assistance of Dominic Raab, are limited. As a general rule, governments have state immunity from suit in the courts of other countries (i.e., if you tried to sue the goverment of China in a UK court), and sovereign immunity in their own courts (i.e., if you tried to sue the government of China in a Chinese court.) In particular, in the UK other countries are immune from suit according to the State Immunity Act of 1978, except for commercial transactions (which this would not qualify as.)

11
  • 1
    Ok, excellent answer - thanks! Things are more organized than I thought. And, er, so ... my private options might involve sweet-talking Dominic Raab? Hmm, you know, it might be better to take my solicitor off standby and just buy a new dog...
    – SusanW
    May 7 at 22:47
  • 3
    Technically, the rocket was launched by CALT, which is a state owned company in China, and not by the government itself. Not sure if that makes a difference, though, but I guess it's at least worth commenting. May 8 at 17:19
  • 1
    @Barmar: It might still be possible for the OP to sue CALT as a separate entity from the government of the PRC. It's not clear to me whether (a) CALT, as a state-owned company but not an agency of the state itself, would be viewed as having state immunity, or (b) any case brought against CALT would be superseded by the treaty obligations between the UK and the PRC. This is the sort of thing that international lawyers are paid the big bucks to haggle over, and I'm definitely not an international lawyer. May 8 at 18:35
  • 2
    Indeed, does saying that the State is liable preclude mean that they assume the liability of their contractors, or could both be liable?
    – Barmar
    May 8 at 18:38
  • 1
    i don't entirely follow this. If you (personally) sue CALT in UK court, neither party is a signatory of the Treaty. And CALT can't claim state immunity either. The chief problem appears to be how you'd enforce a UK judgement against CALT.
    – MSalters
    May 10 at 10:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.