24 Nov 2011
The possible early return to Earth of the Phobos-Grunt flight vehicle following the launch anomaly encountered on 9 November raises questions about liability for any potential damage resulting from the re-entry.
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Although the original mission design envisaged the controlled return of a capsule carrying samples from the Martian moon Phobos to a designated landing area, the possibly uncontrolled re-entry of the complete upper stage complex, including the Chinese satellite Yinghou-1 has the potential to cause damage on the ground. Activities in outer space are governed by a number of international space treaties:
- Outer Space Treaty - The ‘Treaty on principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of Outer Space, including the moon and other celestial bodies’ of 1967, the ‘Constitution’ of space law;
- Rescue Agreement - The ‘Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects launched into Outer Space’ of 1968, dealing mainly with the legal status of astronauts in case of an accident;
- Liability Convention - The ‘Convention on international liability for damage caused by space objects' of 1972, addressing the question of liability in case of damage caused by a space object;
- Registration Convention - The ‘Convention on Registration of Objects launched into Outer Space’ of 1976, creating an obligation to register objects launched into space both with the UN and at the national level;
These treaties form the basis for dealing with activities in outer space and related national legislation such as the UK’s Outer Space Act (1986). The Outer Space Act addresses the UK’s international responsibilities and obligations involving the activities of its nationals in outer space and is reflected in the UK Space Agency’s licensing process.
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The Liability Convention dictates that the launching state is strictly liable for any damage caused by a space object, and if more than one state is responsible for the launch, they are jointly liable. At first glance, the Russian Federation is the launching state for Phobos-Grunt as it procured the launch. Additionally, unless they are indemnified under the conditions of the lease of the Baikonur Cosmodrome to the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan could also be liable for damages caused by the re-entry of Phobos-Grunt as the vehicle was launched from its territory. Neither the Ukraine (who provided the launch vehicle) or China (who provided the Yinghou-1 orbiter) are likely to be implicated in any liability claim as they would not be considered launching states in this instance.
The orbital inclination of Phobos-Grunt is such that the ground track over the Earth extends from 51.4 degrees N (line of latitude which in the UK runs approximately from Cardiff to London) to 51.4 degrees S (as far south as the Falkland Islands).
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Unless the Russian mission controllers can regain control of Phobos-Grunt, the complex will fall to Earth in the territories of the states that lie between these latitudes, which include the UK. In all likelihood, no discernible damage will result from the re-entry, and like UARS and ROSAT before it, Phobos-Grunt will fall unobserved in a remote area or ocean.