Space: Liabilities in India and other countries

Millions of pieces of space debris litter the space, be it defunct satellites (average lifespan of a satellite is 5-8 years) or the intentional destruction of satellites through anti-satellite missile testing (ASAT) demonstrated successfully by United States (US), Russia, China, and India (March, 2019). Disaster occurs when any debris travelling at high speeds strikes a working satellite/spacecraft, or falls back on earth.  There are mechanisms for tracking of more than 5,00,000 (Five Lakh)  space debris, so that liability can be fixed on the owner of the debris, while there are millions of smaller debris which cannot be tracked. Some examples of damage due to space debris include, damage of French satellite by debris from a rocket exploded a decade ago in 1996 and the destruction of functioning US Iridium satellite by collusion with a defunct Russian satellite in 2009. Countries have also developed certain mission control manoeuvres to avoid collision of debris with the spacecraft or satellites.

Space Law:

Liabilities related legislations are few in number. United Nations (“UN”) has published treaties governing space laws, requiring the member countries to ratify the treaties and to legislate suitable space laws in their respective countries. The five most important treaties of the UN are:

No. United Nations Treaties Ratification
1. 1967: Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (“Outer Space Treaty”) To note that India, USA, UK, France, China etc. have ratified.*
2. 1968: Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (“Rescue Agreement”)
3. 1972: Convention on the International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (“Liability Convention”)
4. 1976: Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (“Registration Convention”)
5. 1979: Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (“Moon Agreement”) To note that India and France have signed, while China has ratified. However, US, UK, Russia have not signed.*

*Countries that we have been reading for our compare and contrast.

Of the above 5 (five) treaties, the 1972 Liability Convention imposes a duty on nations/countries (“States”) to be responsible to the public activities undertaken as a sovereign country.  The Liability Convention mandate that the States are equally liable for both public as well as private activities undertaken on its soil, i.e., States need to take legislative action to regulate space activities on its soil, as they are liable to answer internationally for private space activities violating international space law. In case an Indian citizen launches a spacecraft from outside India say France, then it appears that both France and India are considered launching States.

A State can exercise three types of jurisdiction to attract liability for space activities as shown below:

  1. Territorial Jurisdiction: Most of the operations of the space are conducted at ground control stations by way of remote controlled activities. Whether to make a rocket shed its first stage or to make a telecommunications satellite to change frequencies by ground control stations, it will allow States to control activities in outer space, by way of control over the territorial sovereignty. Further, territorial jurisdiction also plays an effective role over launch activities.
  2. Personal Jurisdiction: Since a person’s nationality cannot be lost due to operation from a foreign soil, the State can exercise personal jurisdiction based on the control over any incorporated company or company headquartered in their territory.
  3. Registration Jurisdiction: No space object can be launched without registration by States. That is a sovereign right to exercise jurisdiction over even the earlier two territorial and personal jurisdictions.

Potential Liability: While certain other States have already framed the regulations for potential liability, India is still in the process of legislating, per below table of comparison on liabilities:

Country Description of State Law on Space

Under the Draft Space Activities Bill, 2017, Section 8(2)(h) proposes third party insurance· Section 12 mandates indemnification of Central Government subject to a quantum to be decided by the Government.

Section 13 proposes punishment with imprisonment of not less than 1 year but up to 3 years or with fine of not less than one crore rupees and for continuing offences with a fine of INR 50 Lakhs per day for not obtaining a license.

Section 25(2) proposes that any IP rights created onboard a space object shall be deemed to be property of Central Government

USA Section 16 of the Commercial Space Launch Act, 1984 mandates obtaining liability insurance under a license issued for an amount as is considered necessary by the Secretary of United States.
UK Section 10 of Outer Space Act 1986, mandates indemnification to Her Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom against any claims brought against the government in respect of damage or loss arising out of activities carried on by the licensee.
France Article 13 of the French Space Operation Act, 2008, mandates absolute liability for damage on ground and in air space for third party liabilities, while the liability is on a fault basis for damaged caused in outer space.  Further, there is a limitation for the term of liability up to one year from the date of fulfilment of obligations mentioned in the license. Article 14-15 limits the claim for compensation from French Government to a fixed ceiling of 60 Million Euro and the private space operator is liable to reimburse for indemnifications exceeding 60 M Euro

The Department of Space is under the Prime Minister’s Office in India and there is a dire need to bring in a robust legislation to monitor and register private space activities. Even in the absence of any specific laws, the States are liable for any potential losses that may occur due to any damage caused by its citizens. With numerous space explorations being undertaken by private sector the world over, India too should encourage private space explorations and at the same time, also limit the liability on the exchequer.


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