Debris From a Chinese Rocket Is Falling Towards Earth

Debris From a Chinese Rocket Is Falling Towards Earth

Who Is Liable If It Injures Someone?

Long march 5B debris falling towards earth

Photo: STR/AFP

Long March 5B is a Chinese rocket launched into space on April 28th. Now, debris from the rocket is expected to crash back down to earth, with the largest piece of debris being around 100 feet long (the length of a basketball court). If it manages to land on earth, it will be one of the largest pieces of space debris ever to do so.

When will this happen? It is uncertain, but it’s speculated to occur between late Saturday (5/8) and early Sunday (5/9). It is also entirely unknown where the debris will land. Estimates say that the landing will be between 41.5 degrees North and 41.5 degrees south. Roughly between New York City and New Zealand. As a law firm, our attorneys’ immediate thoughts were: “who is liable if the debris causes damages or injures?”

Who is Liable?

There are clear rules on this since human-made space debris is nothing new. Just last year, Long March 5B also dropped space debris on the African Nation the Ivory Coast. In 1979, fragments of the US space station, Skylab, crashed onto Australia, and the year prior, a Soviet satellite, Cosmos 954, fell onto Canada, leaving radioactive debris all over the area.

International Space laws provide a compensation plan for human-made space debris that falls to earth. This law was enacted during the 1972 liability convention by the UN and places liability on the “launching state” for damages caused by the debris. In this particular situation, this would cast liability onto China. This law has only been enacted once before and that was on the Soviet Union when their satellite fell onto Canada.

It is unlikely that the debris will cause any damages or injuries, however. The earth is 70% water, and if the debris does hit land, most of the land on earth is uninhabited.

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