The European Space Agency’s (ESA) dead Envisat satellite no longer has enough fuel to maneuver.
This means that the ESA can be held liable for damage the Envisat causes to another satellite.
Because the space agency decided to continue to operate the satellite until it basically ran out of fuel, the ESA can be held liable for negligence, or gross negligence. International guidelines advise that each satellite in orbit save enough fuel to be powered to a lower orbit, safely out of the way of other satellites. Without any shuttles available to snag the satellite from orbit, Envisat or pieces of it, can potentially damage active satellites during the 100-plus years Envisat will remain in polar orbit.
Envisat was launched in 2002 and has a 26-meter cross section and weighs some 8,000 kilograms (17637 lbs.). Envisat apparently died in April right after transmitting this image of Spain’s Canary Islands using its Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR).
Adding to the potential damage the satellite may cause, there is still propellant, batteries, residual gases and other stored energy remaining onboard.
The ESA may have no choice but to plan a mission to remove Envisat from orbit or become liable and pay compensation in case of future collisions.
Space law experts disagree over whether the agency could be sued for negligence, an action that would be without precedent. However, as orbits around Earth become more littered with debris and expensive new satellites are launched, this could come back to haunt the ESA.
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I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +