Space debris mitigation efforts have followed a slow build from the earliest days of the space program. The U.N. first drafted an orbital debris liability regime in a 1972 addition to its Outer Space Treaty. That document holds the launching country fiscally responsible for all harm caused by debris resulting from spacecraft licensed to it.
Even though the U.S. is ultimately liable for damage caused by any satellite licensed to its soil, a commercial operator that causes damage must then repay the government, von der Dunk says. The liability could include lost revenue from service disruptions or traffic rerouted to other satellites--as well as the cost of replacing a hugely expensive spacecraft. Then there's the brand fallout from consumers who can't place calls on their smart phones or listen to their satellite radios.
Under the Outer Space Treaty, the basis for liability in space is negligence. The plaintiff needs to demonstrate the defendant knew or should have known its satellite had the potential to become or release debris that could damage another spacecraft.