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I was doing a mission analysis on returning a nuclear payload (a spent reactor, nuclear battery, or something slightly radioactive) from orbit and was seeing the potential ways of bringing it back. The only way that seemed possible (from a regulatory point of view) was if the payload landed in the open ocean without having the potential of redirecting to a populated place, making the following tracks most viable: Reentering due south towards Antarctica in the Indian Ocean, Reentering due south or north in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and Reentering on any track into the Pacific Ocean.

So my question is this: Would the operator or owner of the payload need to get a reentry license from the FAA to fly these trajectories? Or are these trajectories outside the FAA's jurisdiction since they end in international waters?

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The jurisdiction to enforce these rules is based on where 'you' the responsible party are. If you are a US citizen the FAA and others will assert their authority over you, wherever you reside. Some of this is because the US is responsible for launches (and reentries) by its citizens.

Landing a nuclear device without prior permission anywhere on the planet is very likely to get you in a lot of trouble, no matter where you reside.

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  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if NASA had prior permission for the RTG in Apollo 13 ? $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Nov 14, 2023 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Woody It is fairly clear that very rules applied in their fullness to NASA. They could get exceptions for pretty much whatever they wanted it seemed. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Nov 14, 2023 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ The Navy used RGTs to power ocean floor transponders. Its interesting that the Navy made a formal decision NOT to retrieve deep RGTs at the end of their service life. They decided their present locations were safer than terrestrial disposal, let alone the cost and danger of recovering them. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Nov 14, 2023 at 21:52

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