Touching Space Debris Could Land You In Jail

Thomas Smith

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If a piece of space junk falls from the sky and lands on your property, can you legally keep it? If one were to fall on your front lawn, perhaps you’d like to turn an old rocket fuel tank into a planter for your petunias?

It seems like a silly question, but as space fills up and more governments and companies launch satellites, the amount of space junk falling to earth is increasing dramatically. Earlier this year, junk from a Chinese spacecraft was projected to fall onto the United States. (It ultimately ended up landing in the Indian Ocean.)

Finders, Keepers?

If junk from a US spacecraft were to fall on your front lawn, could you keep it?

The answer is no—you can’t legally keep it. As amateur historian Kevin Spencer points out, pieces of American spacecraft are property of the Federal Government. Federal law prevents citizens from knowingly using or selling items of value to the government.

The penalties? Fines or imprisonment. NASA reportedly takes an especially dim view of people who kept fallen debris from the Space Shuttle disasters. The agency still operates a hotline for citizens to report finding objects they believe to be part of either the Challenger or Columbia.

States have their own laws, too. Florida will fine you or imprison you for a year if you try to keep fallen space debris unlawfully. That state law makes sense, as many rocket launches occur in Florida, and thus, a lot of debris from failed spacecraft rains down on the state.

If a fallen rocket hits your house or otherwise damages your property, you probably can’t keep it, but you do have some additional rights. International law requires countries to compensate each other for damages caused by fallen spacecraft. If an American spacecraft fell on your garden shed, NASA would need to remove it and replace the shed at their expense.

Don't Touch It

Even if you could keep fallen space junk, you probably wouldn’t want to. As Spencer points out, many spacecraft use hyperbolic propellants that will literally melt parts of your body if you touch them. These chemicals are so toxic that mere parts per million can kill a person. Touching a contaminated piece of space debris could easily prove fatal.

Even with all the spacecraft currently whizzing around the earth, it’s still extremely unlikely to have a piece of space debris fall on your yard. If you ever did find a suspected piece of space junk, though, your best move would be to stay far away from it and call your local law enforcement.

They could then coordinate the federal resources needed to remove it safely and compensate you for any damage. That’s a lot better than taking the risk of fines, jail time, or serious bodily injury.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips: tom@gadoimages.com

Lafayette, CA
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