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Uncontrolled Satellite Entry

Context: Experts and dignitaries have signed a letter calling for both national and multilateral efforts to restrict uncontrolled re-entries of satellites.

Background of Uncontrolled Satellite Entry

  • Currently, there are more than 6,000 satellites in orbit, most of them in low-earth (100-2,000 km) and geostationary (35,786 km) orbits.
  • Rocket launches: Rockets work on multiple stages. Once a stage has performed its action, the rocket sheds it.
    • Some rockets shed all their larger stages before reaching the destination orbit while others carry the payload to the orbit, and then perform a deorbit manoeuvre to begin their descent.
    • In both cases, rocket stages come back down to the earth — in controlled or uncontrolled ways.
Uncontrolled Satellite Entry
Uncontrolled Satellite Entry

What is Uncontrolled Re-Entry of Satellites?

  • Uncontrolled re-entry is the phenomenon of rocket parts falling back to earth in unguided fashion once their missions are complete.
  • The path taken by the rocket towards Earth is determined by its shape, angle of descent, air currents and other characteristics.
  • As it falls, it disintegrates. The smaller pieces fan out, and the potential radius of impact will increase on the ground.
  • Majority of the debris have landed in oceans principally because earth’s surface has more water than land.


Effects of Uncontrolled Re-entry

  • Damage to aircraft: Debris from uncontrolled re-entry can impact anywhere on an aircraft, which may damage it, causing potential loss of lives.
  • Contamination: Many parts of satellite contain chemicals that are not healthy for environment. They can contaminate both land and water.
  • Human casualty: Even small parts can be deadly due to the speed at which they strike. This can even cause potential death.


Controlling Re-entry

  • Global Convention: Currently, there is no international binding agreement to ensure rocket stages always perform controlled re-entries.
  • The Liability Convention 1972 requires countries to pay for damages caused due to satellite re-entry, not prevent them
  • Aiming Oceans: Experts have called for bodies to aim for an ocean in order to avoid human casualties.
  • Modern design: Advances in electronics and fabrication have made way for smaller satellites, which are easier to build and launch.
    • These satellites experience more atmospheric drag and thus are also likelier to burn up during re-entry.


Space Liability Convention, 1972

  • Objective: The convention was created to supplement existing and future national laws providing compensation to parties injured by space activities.
  • According to the Liability Convention, countries bear international responsibility for all space objects that are launched from their territory.
    • Regardless of who launches the space object, if a space object was launched from State A’s territory, or from State A’s facility, or if State A caused the launch to happen, then State A is fully liable for damages that result from that space object.
    • If two states work together to launch a space object, then both the partner countries are jointly and severally liable for the damage that object causes.
  • Drawbacks: Claims must be brought on the state level only. Even if one person is making claim under the convention, he/she must arrange for his or her country to make a claim against the country that launched the space object.


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