Who do you sue if you’re hit by a satellite?
A defunct satellite from the European Space Agency the size of a Chevy Suburban is set to plunge to Earth somewhere between Sunday night and Monday afternoon -- and experts say there's no way to precisely determine where it will crash.
GOCE, or Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, ran out of gas last month and has been steadily sinking towards the Earth. As the planet rotates, the satellite whizzes over nearly every point on Earth. Experts expect it to plunge harmlessly into the oceans that cover 70 percent of the surface of the planet.
“Basically, governments are responsible for their own spacecraft,” explained Marcia S. Smith, president of the Space and Technology Policy Group in Arlington, Va. “[If] you could prove a piece of GOCE hit your Honda, you could go to your government to make a claim,” she told FoxNews.com.
400 pounds of smoking metal spread over a "sizeable swath" is nothing to sniff at. But should one of those fragments land on U.S. soil, you’re fully covered, according to the United Nations. The U.N.’s Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects was created in September of 1972, and has been ratified by 88 countries and signed by 22 nations as of January 1, 2013.
“A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight,” reads the policy. And the GOCE satellite was launched from Russia, so that country would be responsible, said Mark Hopkins chairman of the executive committee of the National Space Society.
While space objects reenter the atmosphere all the time, few pieces survive the fiery trip and many of those end up in the ocean, Smith said. But sometimes, they do. Russia's Cosmos 954 satellite crashed in Canada in 1978, with a radioactive energy source. That sounds more alarming than it actually was; the element was “vanishingly small” when it hit ground, Hopkins said. But Canada did try to get money back from the Russians -- and they did pay up, he said.