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On June 27th, Oneweb launched another batch of 36 LEO satellites from Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia. The satellites separated from Soyuz at the altitude of ~400 km. Using their electric propulsion systems, the satellites will make a long trek until they reach their operational altitude of ~1200 km.

  • My question: Knowing that Oneweb is UK-based but their satellites are built in the US, that the launch is from Russian territory but the launch operator is Ariane-Espace (France), which state would be liable for damages if, hypothetically, there is a collision during the orbit transfer phase?

EDIT (Aug 22nd 2021):

Since Oneweb has just successfully launched another batch of satellites, let’s review the answer below that Russia and/or France are liable (if it is their fault).

First, from the press-release by Ariane, the launch was a success. Note:

The satellites deployed into a near-polar orbit 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth, then will migrate over the coming weeks to their operational orbit, which features an altitude of 746 miles (1,200 km).

Now, the “migration” from 450km to 1,200km are performed by the satellites themselves, Ariane and Roscomos have no control whatsoever of this phase, having fulfilled their contract of delivering the satellites to the right spot in Space (450km near-polar orbit). So, if a collision occurs on the journey to 1,200km, it is plausible (and fair) that France and Russia can successfully argue that it is not their fault.

Hence which government has a responsibility of oversight on these satellites migration? The UK because the Oneweb company is registered there? The US since the satellites are manufactured there?

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm a big fan of "puzzler-type" questions, so I've added a bounty. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 26, 2021 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ I thought that most operators set up a scheme where each satellite was legally owned by its own separate company, all registered in a fiscal paradise like Jersey Island. $\endgroup$
    – ChrisR
    Jul 26, 2021 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisR, I am not very bright. I can't see the connection between tax evasion and liability for damages caused to another party. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Jul 26, 2021 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @NgPh Apologies, I didn't explain the link in full. My point is that if the jurisdiction of the satellite falls under the country in which it is officially registered, then I would guess that one would have to sue the specific shell company that "owns" the spacecraft in the nation where that spacecraft is registered. $\endgroup$
    – ChrisR
    Jul 26, 2021 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisR, indeed an interesting scenario. We can ask ourselves whether OneWeb (or Swarm Technologies, just for the sake of debate) would not be better off having a shell company in Cayman Islands or Bermuda, etc ...? What happen if SpaceX moves its headquarter to Panama to avoid FAA's "antiquated bureaucracy"? What does Space Law say in these scenarios? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Jul 27, 2021 at 8:25

1 Answer 1

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Space Liability Convention, 1972. A UN treaty with a quite healthy ratification status.

While Article I defines what damage is, there are three types of damage to consider.

  1. Damage caused on the Earth:

Article II. A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the earth or to aircraft in flight.

  1. Damage in space to the object the satellite collided with:

Article III. In the event of damage being caused elsewhere than on the surface of the earth to a space object of one launching State or to persons or property on board such a space object by a space object of another launching State, the latter shall be liable only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible

  1. Damage to the satellite itself.

In Article I, a "launching state" is:

(i) a state which launches or procures the launching of a space object;
(ii) a State from whose territory or facility a space object is launched;

Where (ii) would clearly imply Russia, and with Ariance-Espace "procuring the launching" also France, in what the convention calls a "joint launch".


In case 1, Russia and France would unconditionally be liable for the damage, along the launching state of the space object they collided with.

In case 2, Russia and France would be liable only if the collision was their fault.

In case 3, The launching state of the space object they collided with would be liable, but only if it was their fault. Otherwise, nobody would be liable for the damage as far as the convention is concerned.

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  • $\begingroup$ Let's say that France & Russia argue that they are not at fault since they have no knowledge on how the navigation from insertion orbit (400km) to operational orbit (1200km) works. Is the US liable then, or nobody is? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 2, 2021 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ @NgPh Sensible cases however, I suspect, as all this was left undefined in the treaties, it would be quite legitimate to argue that all parties are still valid as launching states. For example, it is only common sense, not the treaty wording, that leads us to imagine that, the France/Russia liability is limited as per the suggestion of Case 2. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Aug 23, 2021 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Puffin, indeed the language of the treaties is crafted so that there are rooms for states to escape liabilities. But let's assume that we are independent judges, could we invoke Art. VI of the OST to decide that either the UK or the US, or both are liable? Or at least, they have to prove that the companies doing businesses under their oversight are not at fault? $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 25, 2021 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ Extract of Art. VI:"States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, ..., whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty". $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 25, 2021 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ @NgPh OK, I hadn't made my comment clear. I was trying to say, in the context of your 2nd Aug comment above, that nothing that France and Russia might argue changes the extract of Article VI you quoted just now, i.e. all four parties remain liable (in principle) after separation of the satellites from the launch vehicle. i.e. I think we agree on this point. Whether it would be carried through in a real legal test of the OST is, as yet, unknowable obviously. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Aug 25, 2021 at 20:34

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