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When Satellites Collide: Commercial Ventures Beware

April 13, 2009 Published Work
Space News, National Space Symposium Official News Supplement

In February, for the first time, two satellites -- a defunct Russian military satellite and an operational, privately owned Iridium satellite -- collided in orbit. The damage has yet to be fully ascertained, but it will likely include the total loss of the Iridiuim satellite, operational costs to minimize gaps in Iridium coverage and costs resulting from remaining gaps. The collision also created debris that may impact other satellites, potentially causing additional damage.
If this collision occurred between automobiles, ships or airplanes, determining liability and recovering damages would likely involve a fairly straightforward analysis based on established law and insurance agreements. But satellite-to-satellite collisions are uncharted territory, and the current legal framework for space operations provides little protection to private satellite owners. Even if this collision were between two state-owned satellites, assessing fault would be challenging.

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