Jim Wares: Yaun From Heaven
Ilearned our town’s latitude is 42.0495° north. This is very, very good news. We just made it by the skin of our teeth with 0.0505 of a degree of latitude to spare. Sometime in the next day or two, though by the time you read this, it could have happened yesterday, the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station will have fallen from orbit. Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. But a few pieces are expected to survive and crash into the Earth between the latitudes of 43° north and 43° south. Me…I’m hoping for the onboard replicator or perhaps a chunk of dilithium crystal…but I’ll take anything. I mean hey, free Chinese space station pieces. A gift horse sort of thing.
Scientists are saying the odds of any…one…particular person, you for example, being bonked on the head by a piece of Tiangong-1 are about one in several trillion…22 trillion by one accounting. But the odds of ANY human being on Earth being bonked on the head by a piece of space station are more like 1 in 3,300. Sort of like the odds against me eventually winning the lottery are immense but the odds of someone eventually winning the lottery are a hundred percent.
Now, one in 22 trillion, this is a very comforting statistic, that is, unless your name is Lottie Williams. In 1997 Williams was working out in a park in Tulsa Oklahoma when she saw a flash of light in the sky and a few minutes later was struck on the shoulders by a piece of burnt and blackened metal. It was a chunk of the second-stage of a Delta rocket that fell to terra firma after several months of orbiting the Earth. The rest of the surviving rocket engine was found in Texas.
It is estimated that since 1980 over ten million pounds of space debris has survived re-entry. To date, the most dramatic uncontrolled re-entry has been Skylab. Skylab was 9 stories tall and weighed over 77 tons. On July 11th, 1979 it came sailing home back to earth. Most of it burned in the atmosphere or was dispersed over the Indian Ocean but Southern Australia was peppered with some pretty big chunks. The city of Esperance, Australia, imposed a fine of $400.00 on NASA for littering. NASA never paid this fine but in 2009 a patriotic talk radio host, Scott Barley, raised the money to pay it on NASA’s behalf.
And I wonder…why didn’t NASA pay the fine? I mean really! It was their space station scattered across southern Australia. Why, there ought to be a law. By-golly, there is. It’s called the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, or, more briefly, the “Outer Space Treaty”. The Outer Space Treaty was further elaborated upon in the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.
At this moment, there are over 600,000 pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth at over 17,500 MPH. Most of this debris, over 80 percent, is about the size of a marble. The rest is about the size of a softball. At 17,500 MPH, even something the size of grain of rice could take out a multi-million dollar satellite. Beyond the space debris, there are over 1,738 active satellites orbiting the earth. There are over 2,600 dead satellites up there. Even the Russian Sputnik 1, the very first satellite ever put into orbit, is still circling the Earth. With this amount of stuff up there, it’s inevitable that some of this stuff will smash into other stuff and that machines the size of a tractor trailer will fall to Earth. So, when my replicator or dilithium crystal fall from the sky this week, who do I have to thank…if it lands harmlessly in the sand box…or…who do I have to blame if it crashes through the roof and smashes onto my desk. If the replicator lands working and intact, do I get to keep it?
Fortunately the principles of the Outer Space Treaty sorts all this out…sort of. The treaty stipulates that a nation, whether it be a commercial interest or a governmental interest of that nation, retains jurisdiction and control over their space stuff. So my new replicator isn’t really mine. It belongs to the Chinese. Or does it? This is “space” law. Does space law apply on Earth?
The Outer Space Treaty also holds nations liable for the damage their space stuff causes. So if the replicator crashes through the roof, I can hold the Chinese accountable. But the latter 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects says I can hold the Chinese accountable only if they are is some way negligent. But again…does this space law apply on Earth? And, isn’t sending several tons of machinery into space knowing it will one day fall uncontrollably back to Earth already negligent?
In the next few days the Tiangong-1 space station will begin entry into our atmosphere. As it streaks across our sky it will heat up and break up and all but a few pieces will burn up. If by some miraculous longshot, some dilithium crystals or a fully intact replicator lands in my backyard…I’m keeping it. The Chinese are out of luck. It’s mine. Besides, I don’t think space law applies here. There is a greater law, an earthbound law that universally applies…finders keepers, losers weepers. It’s my replicator. This is all I have learned today.
James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org