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Since most rockets are 'expendable', and perform re-entry over sea, their parts either burn up or end up in the world's oceans.

It there any legal basis for the waste (pollution) that ends up in the ocean?

For comparison, if I have an empty, useless and worthless rocket on land, and I want to save on disposal costs.

  • Can I rent a ship, sail out to sea, and dump the rocket - legally - in the ocean? (I hope not?)
  • What if I refurbish the same rocket, fill it with fuel, and launch it straight into the ocean?
  • What if I launch a payload to orbit with it, and then let the first stage crash in the ocean?

Do launching countries themselves have regulations for this, or is it covered by international treaties such as exist for radioactive waste?

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question! Maybe someone could collect used rocket stages, soon to become historical in our breakthrough days of space exploration, before they are much too damaged, and open a museum with them. I guess they are treated like sunken ships or goods lost from ships at sea (containers do fall off ships in storms!) $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Mar 21 '16 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ From memory of this question being asked at a conference everyone who's involved with the launch is responsible; country launched from, country where LSP business is based, country where payloads hail from. Although this is often used in the opposite way - no one is responsible since they all look to each other. $\endgroup$ – ThePlanMan Mar 21 '16 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff The difference with first stages (vs lost sea containers) is, they intentionally end up in the ocean. $\endgroup$ – florisla Mar 21 '16 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ On bulletpoint 3, here is the relevant xkcd $\endgroup$ – David Grinberg Mar 21 '16 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Let me just say that in Kazakhstan, downrange from Baikonur, aluminum and titanium junk business is thriving... $\endgroup$ – SF. Sep 26 '18 at 7:37
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Are you interested in the liability for damage and contamination or the ownership? Either way there are holes you could drive a bus through.

Most importantly in what follows, please bear in mind that I am not a lawyer. However it is edifying to recall that barristers are in aggregate wrong 50% of the time by definition, as it is an adversarial role with a winning and losing party. Hence any of the following could be on the nail, or not!

There is the Outer Space treaty (1967) and the Space liability convention (1971).

Liability

The liability convention is clear on the idea that a space object includes its launch vehicle and that the launching state (notoriously poorly defined):

"shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to an aircraft in flight."

A "space object" is defined in the liability convention:

includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof.

Hence this appears to include first and second stages of launch vehicles and perhaps carrier aircraft and rail-mounted rocket sledges too, these weren't defined.

  • It also says nothing about about the damage caused (e.g. leakage of toxic or radioactive material) under the surface, within the oceans. I mention this simply because the oceans are referred to in the question.

Ownership

The liability convention says nothing about ownership, e.g. for salvage. The Outer Space Treaty does touch upon ownership and says:

A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth.

However the Outer Space Treaty does not define "objects launched into outer space" so well. It appears that it does not obviously include non-orbiting rocket stages to the extent that they are not "launched into outer space".

Whether these are considered abandoned from an ownership (not liability) perspective would have to be checked against other forms of law, national or international, and whether that even mattered for salvage, according to whether the object landed in national or international waters.

What is more, even for objects launched briefly into space and then returning it appears that there are two sub groups:

  • Registered objects, which apparently are permanently subject to jurisdiction and control
  • Other objects are simply "unaffected by their presence in outer space / return to Earth" and thus can apparently can be abandoned in the sense of customary law.
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    $\begingroup$ I was mostly interested in the 'waste disposal' / pollution aspect, hence the reference to radioactive waste. One could view pollution as a liability problem, but who would you pay compensation to for 10.000 small pieces of metal and carbon fiber in international waters? $\endgroup$ – florisla Mar 21 '16 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, it doesn't really fit well. I understand that past claims have been agreed (USSR to Canada for re-entering satellite with radioactive material in the 1970's, also Russia to Kazakhstan for Proton launch stage landings) for clean-up operations, not for the damage itself. $\endgroup$ – Puffin Mar 21 '16 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ So can I call dibs on the 8 pounds of plutonium from Apollo 13? $\endgroup$ – Hannover Fist Mar 21 '16 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ In terms of salvage/ownership, what was negotiated about the Saturn V engines that were recovered a while ago? That should provide some useful precedent. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Mar 21 '16 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Peteris Plausible but we are straying far from space.stackexchange here. Its not obvious what law or treaty applies, it could equally be en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… and I wouldn't expect anyone to hold any confidence which or how it applies unless there are example precedents. $\endgroup$ – Puffin Mar 21 '16 at 21:32

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