February 2018
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Stephanie C. Fox


Never mind worrying about U.F.O.s – it’s I.F.O.s that we have to watch out for.

Orbital debris is relevant, it affects us, and it is once again in the news.

Orbital debris is junk in outer space.

Outer space and all things associated with it has always fascinated and excited me.

I know I’m not alone in that. Star Trek is certainly evidence of that, as are the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, and many others.

The ideas of Star Trek represent our species best hopes for the future, with life as it is now applied to that world, complete with the counterpart to the United Nations of New York City depicted in the United Federation of Planets in San Francisco – conveniently located in the same city as Starfleet Academy and Starfleet’s headquarters.

But what of human activity in space in reality?

When I was in law school, a paper called a baccalaureate essay was required. Essentially, it was a law thesis, and it had to be fairly brief, because lawyers are not encouraged to ramble on and on.

This thesis paper could be done outside of any formal course, or as the term paper for one, and a form would have to be filed with the registrar to make it count as such.

Reasoning that one would have to be crazy to do it as an extra project outside of any course, thus making extra work for oneself, I immediately starting casting about for a suitable course.

What would I like to write about, I asked myself?

I was at the University of Connecticut’s School of Law in Hartford, Connecticut, a top-tier law school in the insurance capital of the world.

I would be damned if I would write about insurance!

It just wasn’t of interest to me, though, ironically, in the blind write-on competition for a place on one of the school’s law journals, I got the insurance one. Sigh. I would have preferred the international one, but that was that. I made the best of it and became a Lead Articles Editor, which I enjoyed.

But back to this paper.

It had to be about something that I actually cared about, because if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be any good.

Some people can write good papers about topics that they don’t love – or at least like – and don’t care about. Not me.

It’s a lot of trouble to get accepted to any graduate school. Once there, one ought to make the most of it and enjoy the experience, not make oneself miserable.

After all, you’ll never be there again, with the chance to study whatever you want, and a thesis paper represents the ultimate, defining opportunity to do that.

The first year of law school is spent on a required curriculum, with the exception of a choice of administrative law courses. I chose environmental law.

That was where I met Professor Richard Parker, a very organized and effective lecturer. He was also a very nice guy. That helps.

Confrontational teaching was the last thing I wanted. I find it distracts from focusing on the subject matter, and that is worse than useless.

I wasted no time in approaching him with my question: would he oversee my thesis paper?

At first, he didn’t know anything about me, such as what year I was in, and asked in a disapproving tone if I had waited until my 3rd year to write that paper.

No, I replied, it was the start of my 2nd year and I wanted to get going on it right away.

Oh, he said, sounding like he approved of that, then I should take his seminar next semester on international environmental law, and do it as part of that course.

I did.

There were just 9 of us, sitting comfortably grouped around in a circle of tables with Professor Parker at the front of the small, upstairs classroom.

We had to present a proposal first, and I had no idea what that was supposed to look like, so I went to his office, took out my pen and notebook, and asked him what he wanted in it.

The answer was a page-long proposal laid out neatly in quick and easy-to-read sections, which he listed, summed up with the question.

I wrote it all down, thanked him, and left.

Off to the library and the computers.

There had to be a United Nations treaty that would encompass international, environmental, and outer space law and deal with toxic torts.

A tort is a civil wrong, for which one sues for money, and a toxic tort involves damage to the ecosystem.

There was such a treaty! It deals with orbital debris. Perfect!

Orbital debris over the Earth. Image via CTGN

Actually, there were several treaties about outer space, including one about the Moon and which countries may own which parts of the moonscape. It’s first come, first serve.

The United Nations has its Office for Outer Space Affairs in Geneva, Switzerland, complete with a website: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/index.html

Excellent – I could get a high from a source in reality similar to that from watching Star Trek!

Back to the treaty that suited my quest for a paper topic:

It is called the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and it was promulgated in 1971.

Here is a a brief summary of the treaty:

Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects

The Liability Convention was considered and negotiated by the Legal subcommittee from 1963 to 1972. Agreement was reached in the General Assembly in 1971 ( resolution 2777 (XXVI)), and the Convention entered into force in September 1972. Elaborating on Article 7 of the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention provides that a launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft, and liable for damage due to its faults in space. The Convention also provides for procedures for the settlement of claims for damages.

I wrote up the topic proposal as required, Professor Parker glanced over it, and approved it. What a relief! (A classmate who wanted to do a paper on sea turtles had had 3 rejections.)

This treaty, as it turned out, had actually been invoked once, in 1979, when a Soviet spy satellite crashed in northern Canada, spreading radioactive debris in the snow where endangered caribou range. The Soviets ended up having to pay $1 million and were not allowed to go there to clean up the mess themselves. U.S. and Canadian scientists had put on radiation suits and collected everything in lead boxes.

The paper I was to write ended up being 33 and a half pages long, and Parker gave it an “A-“. He wrote me a note that he liked these papers to have more law than facts, but qualified that comment with the observation that mine couldn’t have that, because the treaty hadn’t been invoked more than once. That was rather amusing – there was nothing I could do about that.

I had a wonderful time with this project, and I still have the thesis paper and materials I printed out to write it. I doubt I will ever throw them away.

This is the title of the paper: International Toxic Torts Caused by I.F.O.s (Identified Flying Objects).

The task before me was to explain how the treaty worked, using a hypothetical situation. In other words, I was to write some fiction and apply the law to it. Fun!

Here is the fictitious scenario that I wrote:

A Carnival Cruise ship is out on the Caribbean Sea, and it is full of American tourists.

Meanwhile, Kuwait wanted a satellite put into orbit in order to give its cell phones and televisions better reception and reach.

Accordingly, it hired the French to build one and launch it into orbit, which they attempted to do via the European Space Agency (ESA) from their launch point in Kourou, French Guiana.

(At this point in my presentation to the class, I mentioned that it is better to have launch points near water, but that the Russians and Chinese have them inland. The Indians and Japanese, and the Europeans and Americans, put them near water. This means that the Japanese can only launch for 4 months out of the year, because they have an 8-month fishing season. They can’t risk accidents landing on people out in boats…)

Unfortunately, my scenario continued, the launch was unsuccessful. The rocket blew up mid-way into orbit and fell back to Earth, in the Caribbean Sea…right onto that Carnival Cruise ship.

What a mess. Lots of deaths, and of course destruction of property.

Now what?

Enter the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.

(Notice that I had chosen defendants with sufficient funds to leave some hope of collecting on this legal action.)

An arbitration panel would have to be assembled, and it would contain jurists from nations that were members of the United Nations but it would not include any from the nations involved in this dispute.

The United States would be suing on behalf of the families of the victims of this disaster and on behalf of the Carnival Cruise corporation.

France and Kuwait would be on the hook for whatever damages the panel awarded.

The End.

As I explained everything I had learned, I heard one guy in the class say in a stage whisper, “Star Wars, science fiction, Star Trek.”

That earned him a funny look from Professor Parker.

We were presenting 3 papers each week, so all 9 of us were done in 3 weeks (one class meeting per week).

The next week, it was the stage whisperer’s turn, and he was nervous. Before he got up to speak, he said something to the professor about “this topic you assigned me.”

Really?! I thought to myself – you’re laughing at me yet you weren’t fascinated enough on your own about any topic to choose one yourself?! Hah.

At my graduation, Professor Parker told my family that I had convinced him that outer space was a part of the ecosystem and a part of international environmental law.

How had I done that?

The presentation and the paper had talked about the Kosmos-954 accident, and about what satellites are made of and powered by, which is spent uranium and plutonium.

Cosmos-954 Specifications. Wikipedia

Those things have half-lives of 4,000 to 5,000 years, and we know that those elements are part of highly toxic nuclear weapons. We don’t want that stuff falling on us!

At the time I was writing that paper, which was in 1998, there were roughly 600 human-made objects in orbit around the Earth.

These included satellites for communications, spying, and education and exploration.

The famous Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station, then still under construction, occupy higher orbits than the rest, partly to get a better view of the galaxy and beyond, and partly to avoid getting impacted by all that other stuff.

NASA uses a space sensing network to look for safe launch windows between all that stuff, including naturally-occurring orbital debris such as tiny rocks that move at the speed of a .22-calibur bullet (imagine that ripping through an astronaut’s space suit!), and such synthetic debris as a lost toothbrush and a nut-and-bolt that was dropped on a spacewalk.

There are, therefore, obviously many things in orbit that are not under anyone’s control and that present a danger to satellites.

Today, there are far more.

So, to review: the objects in orbit can crash into each other and cause damage to each other, and those same objects can malfunction and spiral back to Earth, spreading radiation world-wide and falling on human settlements and valuable ecosystems.

Space agencies around the globe monitor this problem constantly.

Perhaps you have seen the commercial for the U.S. Air Force in which a collision is averted with a fast re-tasking of a satellite to avoid a rogue space object.

There are plans to “vacuum” this debris from space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZRVI5zH7Z8

Many nations have people working on this:

Japanese scientists create a spatial trash collector

Finding ways to navigate the 170 million pieces of “space junk”

But we’re not safe yet.

Remember the jokes back in 2007 and 2008 when a U.S. satellite was spiraling into the Earth, crossing over Canada from Vancouver and heading east?

David Letterman made one about how Vice President Dick Cheney was locked and loaded, ready to shoot it down.

The real solution was the U.S. Navy ships can be outfitted with equipment to shoot down rogue satellites, and that was what was done.

A formal warning was issued:

U.S. issues notice on downing of satellite

People looked for it from the ground:

See the Falling Spy Satellite

Got it on the second try:

Navy Missile Hits Spy Satellite

There was much discussion over whether or not that effort was worth the financial cost involved, though it was done to make absolutely sure that our spy technology was kept secure:

A Shot Heard ‘Round the World

I said that orbital debris was in the news again, and it is.

Right now, the Chinese have a 9-ton space station with no one on it, and that object will crash to Earth soon. The time cited as “soon” remains undefined.

Guessing Game: When Will China’s Space Lab Fall to Earth?

This announcement comes with a public safety warning.

“Potentially, there may be a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine on board the spacecraft that could survive re-entry,” [the Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies] CORDS researchers wrote on the organization’s Tiangong-1 re-entry page. “For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale vapors it may emit.”

I wonder how much effort is being put into making sure that as many people as possible notice this warning, however.

I decided to add my own effort to the mix by writing this blog post.

What is hydrazine?

Hydrazine is a colorless, highly flammable and toxic liquid that smells like ammonia. It is used in rocket fuels and it used to be used in air bags in motor vehicles.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Symptoms of acute (short-term) exposure to high levels of hydrazine may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edema, seizures, coma in humans. Acute exposure can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. Effects to the lungs, liver, spleen, and thyroid have been reported in animals chronically exposed to hydrazine via inhalation. Increased incidences of lung, nasal cavity, and liver tumors have been observed in rodents exposed to hydrazine.

At least one human is known to have died after 6 months of sublethal exposure to hydrazine hydrate. The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has prepared a Skin Notation Profile evaluating and summarizing the literature regarding the hazard potential of hydrazine, and has developed criteria for a recommended standard for occupational exposure.

It’s nice that we have a voluminous amount of data saved up by the E.P.A. If we’re lucky, Trump won’t have it deleted by the corporate Farmers he has put in charge of it, such as Scott Pruitt.

And where is this satellite likely to fall? As in, on whom, and on whose ecosystem?

The answer is frustratingly vague: anywhere between the 43rd parallels.

43rd Parallels North and South. Images via Wikipedia.

That’s a lot of geographical area to worry about.

Stay safe, and don’t touch any fallen space junk.

2 comments to Never mind worrying about U.F.O.s – it’s I.F.O.s that we have to watch out for.

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