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Legal Action against China Unlikely in Orbital Debris Collision

SEATTLE and GOLDEN, Colo. — The apparent destruction of a tiny Russian satellite by a piece of Chinese space junk probably will not result in legal action against China, experts say.

The collision involved Russia’s Ball Lens In The Space (BLITS) nanosatellite, which likely collided Jan. 22 with a piece of orbital debris spawned by a 2007  anti-satellite test in which China deliberately destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites known as Fengyun-1C (FY-1C).

China could technically be held responsible for the current state of the 7.5-kilogram BLITS satellite under the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, analysts said.

“The Russian Federation, if it decided to open a diplomatic channel to China making a claim under the second scenario of the Liability Convention, would have to show that China was negligent in producing the fragment that struck BLITS and that there was no way that the Russian Federation could have avoided the collision,” said Michael Listner, found and principal of the New Hampshire-based firm Space Law & Policy Solutions.

Chinese Space Debris Hits Russian Satellite. Credit: Analytical Graphics

But Russia is unlikely to go down this road, Listner said, since BLITS — which was being tracked as part of an experimental campaign on precision satellite laser ranging — was relatively inexpensive compared to larger, more complex satellites.

Furthermore, China and Russia currently are engaged in geopolitical cooperation, he added, and opening a can of worms over a nanosatellite probably would not benefit either nation politically.

If Russia decides to go ahead with a claim and diplomatic negotiations do not produce a settlement, the matter could end up in court. But Russia may have a tough time prevailing in a lawsuit, said Brian Weeden, a technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to the peaceful use of outer space.

First of all, Russia would have to show that the FY-1C piece did indeed cause whatever damage BLITS has sustained. The Russians have a good system for tracking space junk and other objects in low Earth orbit, but it would probably be difficult for them to prove this claim with absolute certainty, Weeden said.

Russia would also need to demonstrate that China was at fault in the collision, and that could be another tall order.

“There’s never been a court case on this topic, and there’s no standard for what ‘fault’ or ‘negligence’ is in regard to collisions in space,” Weeden said via email, stressing that he is not a lawyer. “I know lawyers who could probably argue that China is at fault because they deliberately destroyed the FY-1C in an [anti-satellite] test, but plenty of other lawyers who could argue that since there have been 6 years of natural forces acting on the orbit of the piece of Chinese debris, it was actually caused by force majeure.

“All of that means it’s extremely unlikely anything definitive will come of this from some sort of lawsuit.”

There is a precedent for damages being paid out under the 1972 liability convention, Weeden pointed out. Canada sought $6 million in compensation after the Soviet Union’s nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 satellite crashed in 1978, spreading radioactive material across a wide swath of northwestern Canada.

The Soviet Union eventually paid $3 million after diplomatic negotiations. The case never went to court.

If Russia does decide to press a claim against China for the BLITS crash, it needs to do so by Jan. 22, 2014, Listner said, since the statute of limitations is one year for such cases.

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