Monday, June 5

Can Elon Musk be sued for crashing a rocket on the Moon?

Part of a SpaceX rocket is expected to crash on the lunar surface in March, but don’t expect any claims to end up in court.

Iearly March, anyone secretly living on the other side of the Moon will experience their own “Don’t look up” situation. That’s because a piece of a SpaceX rocket will crash into the lunar surface at about 5,700 miles per hour, where it should create a decent-sized crater, one that’s about 19 meters in diameter.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a cascade of angry and sarcastic comments on social media. Many of which were along the lines of: Is this legal? Can SpaceX be held responsible for the impact of its space debris on the Moon?

“Theoretically, yes,” says attorney Steven Kaufman, who co-heads the satellite practice at the Hogan Lovells law firm. “Practically, probably not.”

This is because while there are international treaties and laws that cover damage liability for incidents involving spacecraft, there has to be actual harm caused to trigger any legal action. “It’s crashing into the Moon,” says Kaufman. “No one owns the Moon.”

How the rocket and the Moon will meet is a strange fact. Nearly seven years ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite into orbit. When the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket separated from that craft, it fell into an unstable orbit around Earth, in a space location that’s pretty common for rockets that launch things into deep space to end up.

Now, thanks to the calculations of Bill Gray, an astronomy software engineer that tracks deep space objects, we know the debris will hit the Moon around March 4. That is unusual. Generally, if a rocket booster is in this orbit, it tends to return to Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere. Or, as in the case of the Chinese booster that sent a rover to the Moon, it ends up being launched into orbit around the Sun.

Tyour piece of rocket It won’t be the first spacecraft to collide with the Moon’s surface. NASA has deliberately crashed several aircraft into the lunar surface for scientific and other purposes. But it will mark the first time a spacecraft has inadvertently hit the moon. Which raises an interesting question: Does SpaceX face legal liability for the lunar collision?

In theory, a claim on the Moon could arise if, for example, SpaceX’s booster crashed into China’s lunar rover. In that case, two international treaties would come into play, explains Scot Anderson, a lawyer for Hogan Lovells. That’s the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.

These treaties establish the procedures that countries would follow to present this type of case. China would file a lawsuit against the US for damages caused to its rover. But it is not yet clear how exactly that would happen. “There just isn’t a lot of precedent,” says Anderson.

That’s because only one liability claim has been filed under these treaties. That was in 1978, when the Soviet satellite Kosmos 954 broke up in the atmosphere and spilled radioactive debris over northern Canada. The Canadian government billed the Soviet Union for compensation for the damage, with the two governments eventually agreeing on an amount of 3 million Canadian dollars, which would be close to $10 million in 2022 US dollars.

While the SpaceX rocket likely won’t generate a similar claim, it won’t be long before the laws governing these types of claims and damages start to become more relevant, Kaufman says. That’s because more and more satellites are entering orbit, and as they become less useful, the potential for space debris proliferation becomes more likely. That’s why governments have begun to crack down on debris, and regulators are requiring space companies to develop debris mitigation plans.

In addition, Anderson notes, most of the world’s major space agencies have joined the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, founded in 1993, to begin to tackle the problem. As NASA plans its return to the Moon under the Artemis program, governments working with NASA have signed the Artemis Accords, a treaty that contains provisions to mitigate space debris.

Other countries and even private companies have expressed interest in establishing permanent outposts on the Moon, and it may not be long before incidents like accidental space accidents end up in court.

“If this were to happen 10 years from now, 20 years from now,” says Anderson, “it could be a more significant event.”

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