To date, no country has ever sued for damages under the 1972 Space Liability Convention — despite several space disasters that would seem tailor-made for such cases.
For example, in 1978, the Soviet spy satellite Kosmos 954 spread nuclear debris over 15,000 square miles of Canada's Northwest Territory. It took the assistance of U.S. Nuclear Emergency Search Teams to collect the plutonium-infused debris and dispose of it properly. In remote Canada. In winter. (Read: This was not cheap.)
Intense negotiations between Canada and the Soviet Union were required to secure a meager $3 million payout, though the USSR likely paid that sum rather than risk a much higher judgment if Canada invoked international rulings under the Space Liability Convention.
In 1979, portions of Skylab landed in the Australian shire of Esperance, leading to the local government slapping a fine of $400 on NASA for littering. As the shire had no international standing, the SLC was not invoked (and the fine has never been officially paid).Perhaps the most likely candidate for a Space Liability Convention suit predates the SLC and the Outer Space Treaty by a few years. In 1964, a U.S. military navigational satellite, Transit-5BN-3, failed to reach orbit. Upon reentry, the satellite's plutonium power supply was compromised, spreading more radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere than all preceding nuclear weapons testing combined. It was this accident that convinced the United States to abandon nuclear-powered satellites altogether.
If the SLC had been around in 1964, you can bet more than a few countries would have slapped some damage claims on the United States. Here's hoping the SLC's never-been-used streak continues, because we'd hate to see the accident that finally makes it worthwhile.
That's not just some spine-tingling space-related speculation, it's a litigiously limited-liability line of Geek Trivia.
The quibble of the week
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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.