Can SpaceX’s Starlink sue Russia for the consequences of anti-satellite missile test space debris?

Experts agree that the Russian anti-satellite missile test that tore apart the defunct surveillance satellite Cosmos 1408 on November 15 will cause headaches for operators of low-Earth orbit satellites for years. Can they hold the guilty party accountable?

According to Christopher Johnson, a space law advisor for the Secure World Foundation, a private organization dedicated to the sustainable use of space, Russia’s act is akin to releasing a toxic chemical into the ocean. Everyone who flies satellites in the affected space patch now has to deal with the consequences: the cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of space debris larger than 4 inches (10 centimeters) and thousands of smaller fragments that cannot be traced from the earth. These fragments hurtled through space at speeds of 25,000 kph (15,700 mph) completely out of control, threatening everything in their path.

Among those at risk are the International Space Station, where the seven astronauts on board had to take shelter from the debris shortly after the ASAT test, and SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation of nearly 2,000 satellites transmitting the Internet.

The anti-satellite test, Johnson told, is likely a violation of an international space law called the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which requires countries that fly anything in space to use space responsibly and in harmony with others.

Article IX of the treaty, which was signed in 1967, urges countries to cooperate and assist each other in their efforts in space, avoid harmful contamination of the space environment, and not interfere with the interests of other space nations.

Related: Kessler Syndrome and the Space Debris Problem

This NASA chart shows the amount of space debris currently orbiting Earth. The debris field is based on data from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. (Image credit: NASA / JSC Goddard Space Flight Center)

“I would say that a state can already claim that Russia has not shown due regard to the corresponding interests of other states,” Johnson told “It has not adhered to the principles of cooperation and mutual assistance in Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty. It has not taken precautions to prevent harmful pollution of outer space, which is an obligation it has, and has also caused harmful pollution of the outer space. outer space “.

Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, was one of the first signatories to the Outer Space Treaty at the height of the Cold War-era space race.

More than 50 years later, Russia decided to showcase its satellite-destroying skills on a target located smack in the middle of one of the most-used parts of space close to Earth. Cosmos 1408 orbited at an altitude of approximately 290 miles (470 kilometers), just 25 miles (40 km) above the space station. Starlink satellites orbit 550 km (340 miles). There are many others, including, for example, a couple of hundred spacecraft from the Planet Earth observation company, which fly between 280 and 310 miles (450 and 500 km).

Double the avoidance maneuvers

All of these operators will now have to perform more than twice as many space debris avoidance maneuvers as before, Tim Flohrer, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) office for space debris, told shortly after the antisatellite test.

“The workload will certainly increase,” Flohrer said. “In particular for everything up to 600 kilometers [370 miles] orbit.”

More evasion maneuvers mean satellites will run out of fuel faster and spend more free time, without providing the service for which they were designed, as they must be turned off during maneuvers. Ironically, the burden of preventing more collisions and creating more orbital debris now rests on the shoulders of these satellite operators, who will have to regularly convene teams of experts to navigate these treacherous encounters. How could they hold the real culprit accountable?

“It really wouldn’t be in their best interests, short term or long term, to set the precedent that they are not going to complain,” Johnson said. “Their business case and their operations are really hurt by this debris cloud, even if they can predict it perfectly. If they have to keep maneuvering away from the debris, I think that could seriously affect their business.”

A precedent

The legal basis for filing a lawsuit against Russia is not straightforward. In 1972, the UN negotiated an addition to the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention, which states that any state that flies something in space is absolutely responsible for any damage it causes on Earth, in the air over it, or in the sky. space.

So far, this responsibility has only been invoked once. In 1978, Russia agreed to pay C $ 3 million ($ 2.36 million) after remnants of its Cosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite survived atmospheric reentry and spread highly radioactive material across a 370-mile-wide patch. (600 km) from northern Canada.

But no one has ever made anyone pay for damage caused in space. Despite international outcry, China got away with generating the largest space debris cloud in history with an anti-satellite missile test in 2007. Fragments from this incident remain the greatest threat to spacecraft in near space. to the earth. Two years later, the defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 collided with the US commercial telecommunications satellite Iridium 33. The collision produced another huge cloud of debris that saturates orbit to this day. Also in this case no one paid.

The cost of constantly dodging

Ram Jakhu, an expert in international space law and a lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, says that the Liability Convention is primarily meant to cover actual physical damage to a satellite. If a piece of debris generated by the Russian ASAT test destroyed a Starlink satellite, for example, SpaceX could ask the US government to ask the Russian government to pay damages on behalf of the company. But as long as Starlink and all the other operators manage to continue dodging the garbage, compensation for the financial damage caused by this constant need to maneuver would be more difficult to demand.

“It is possible but very difficult,” Jakhu told “The [physical damage] The scenario is relatively easy because it is relatively easy to prove who caused the damage. That must be established before making a claim. the [economic damage] scenario would be more difficult to test. “

Johnson, however, believes that the aftermath of this incident may set a new precedent, expanding the traditional understanding of ‘harm’ to include the economic impacts of avoiding space debris.

“We often think that liability for damages under space law requires physical damage,” Johnson said. “But opinions on that are evolving and monetary and operational damage could also be included as compensable damage.”

Where to take the case?

So if all the agencies and operators affected by the Russian anti-satellite demonstration want to hold the culprit accountable, where would they go? First, Johnson said, to their respective governments, who could then take the case to global institutions based in The Hague: either to the International Court of Justice for a public hearing or to the International Court of Arbitration, where it would be heard behind it. . closed doors. The situation could also be dealt with in diplomatic discussions between states.

Regardless of the location, the important thing, Johnson added, is that victims speak out about the damage. “They should inform the world if they have to perform maneuvers – how much does it cost to do that, how much does their operational life decrease because of that,” Johnson said. “Let the world know how it affects you. I think it’s a responsible thing to be transparent about how it affects you.”

Ignoring the problem of space debris

In recent years, experts around the world have been calling for more and more stringent space debris prevention measures. More and more satellites are being launched, increasing the risk of space collisions. There are currently about 3,000 missing satellites orbiting the Earth, according to ESA.

The spent rocket stages that lifted those satellites also remain in orbit and occasionally explode, generating masses of fragments. Collisions between space debris and old satellites create more clutter. ESA estimates that, in total, the space around Earth is home to a staggering 36,500 pieces of garbage over 4 inches (10 centimeters), 1 million pieces between 0.4 and 4 inches (1 to 10 cm). ) wide and 330 million pieces that are smaller than 0.4 inches (1 cm) but larger than 0.04 inches (1 millimeter). Each of these fragments is capable of destroying or, at least, significantly damaging a satellite.

In August 2016, a piece of space debris less than 0.2 inches (5 mm) smashed into the solar panel of the European Earth observation satellite Copernicus Sentinel-1A, causing an immediate loss of power. The spacecraft recovered from the incident and continues its mission to this day. But mission operators said the consequences would have been much more dire if the main body of the spacecraft had been hit.

And the risk of such accidents will increase for at least the next decade as a result of the Russian ASAT test, according to Flohrer.

Eventually, the debris from the ASAT test will succumb to the drag of Earth’s residual atmosphere, its orbit decomposing and burning as it falls to Earth. Depending on the altitude these fragments were sent to when the missile breached Cosmos 1408, this natural cleaning process can take years or decades. By then, the fragments may have caused many more collisions.

“I think everyone has always said ‘do we need an in-orbit crash, an in-orbit collision, an in-orbit catastrophe before we get serious?'” Johnson said. “Maybe this is what takes us all seriously, and it hasn’t caused any damage yet. It hasn’t caused the collision yet, but maybe this is the instigating incident for people to really get serious.”

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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