Current space regulations mean that private companies are immune to the consequences of damages caused by their decommissioned tech in orbit, known as space debris, lawyers have told City A.M.
“The liability for the collisions in outer space rests with the launching state of the spacecraft operator… It does not deal with private players per se,” Akshay Sewlikar, managing associate at Linklaters, said.
“With the proliferation of private actors in outer space, states need to codify their liability to ensure coherence at an international level. The current treaties on space law were drafted and agreed in the 1970s and 80s and need an overhaul.”
However, it is often difficult to identify the country which initially launches particular debris, which means that government’s too, can avoid responsibility for potentially billions in damages.
It comes as Elon Musk’s SpaceX snagged the $255m (£212.6m) contract to launch NASA’s latest billion-dollar telescope into space, the US space agency announced on Tuesday.
The eccentric billionaire’s space venture has fallen under tough criticism in recent months, including from the European Space Agency, for the rate at which it is sending satellites into orbit and contributing towards space debris – a growing issue in the sector.
Rachael O’Grady, partner in the international arbitration practice at Mayer Brown International, added: “We know that even small objects have the ability to cause huge damage in space, given the speeds at which they travel – a speck of paint smashed a window of the ISS in 2016.
“If the new telescope were hit by space debris, the question as to who would foot the bill for the damage is unclear. If it were possible to ascertain the ‘owner’ of the space debris then, in that scenario, there would be two potential candidates who would need to pay up: the state from which the object was launched and the state whose nationals were involved in the launching of the object – if they’re different.
“This will undoubtedly present an increasing issue in the years to come if it is not resolved which, in turn, could threaten mankind’s continued progress in outer space.”