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International Liability for Commercial Space Activities and Related Issues of Debris  

Elina Morozova and Alena Laurenava

Space activities are technically sophisticated and challenging endeavors involving high risk. Notwithstanding precautionary measures that are taken by commercial operators, damage may be caused during space objects’ launching, passing through air space, in-orbit maneuvering and operating, and de-orbiting. The rules and procedures aimed at ensuring the prompt payment of a full and equitable compensation for such damage constitute the international liability regime, which is of crucial importance in space law. The first reference to international liability for damage caused by space objects and their component parts on Earth, in air space, or in outer space can be traced back to the very beginning of the space era. In 1963, just a few years after the first ever artificial satellite was launched, international liability was declared by the United Nations General Assembly as one of the legal principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space. It was later made legally binding by inclusion in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and received further development in the 1972 Liability Convention. The latter is generally referred to as lex specialis when the interrelation between the two international treaties is described and introduces several provisions that treat liability for damage caused in specific circumstances somewhat differently. International space law imputes liability on states that launch or procure launchings of space objects and states from whose territory or facility space objects are launched. This does not, however, exclude liability for damage caused by space objects that are operated by private entities. Still, international liability for accidents involving commercial operators stays with the so-called launching states, as this term is defined by the Liability Convention for the same states that are listed in the Outer Space Treaty as internationally liable. Insurance is well known to address damages and liability issues, including those arising from commercial launches; however, it is not always mandatory. Frequently, space-related accidents involve nonfunctional space objects and their component parts, which are usually referred to as “space debris.” This may include spent rocket stages and defunct satellites, as well as fragments from their disintegration. Since the nonfunctional state of a space object does not change its legal status, the relevant provisions of international space law that are applicable to space objects continue to apply to what is called space debris. This means, in particular, that launching states are internationally liable for damage caused by space debris, including cases where such debris was generated by private spacecraft. The probability of liability becomes even higher when it comes to active space debris removal. Such space activities, which are extensively developed by private companies, are inextricably linked to potential damage. Yet, practical problems arise with identification of space debris and, consequently, an efficient implementation of the liability regime.