The Russian space probe Phobos-Grunt was just on its way to Mars last week when a malfunction trapped it in Earth’s orbit. Communication problems have since prevented Russia’s space agency from repairing the craft and it will soon reenter Earth’s atmosphere uncontrollably. It is the third time in as many months that a large man-made object could fall from space and impact the surface of the Earth. But the Phobo-Grunt probe is different—it carries large amounts of toxic fuel on board.
What’s the Big Idea?
An uncontrolled reentry implies that officials are uncertain about when and where the craft will impact Earth. The Outer Space Treat of 1967, expanded upon by the Liability Convention of 1972, ‘applies a strict liability standard where the launching state is held strictly liable for any damage caused by a space object even in the face of circumstances that are outside its control’. It is possible that Russia may ask the U.S. to shoot down the probe to prevent an uncontrolled reentry, though diplomatic barriers may exist to such a request.