Satellite’s Impact Pinned

September 27, 2011

NASA has pinpointed where its now famously falling satellite landed, and unless you are an insurer of someone who lives in the middle of the Indian Ocean between the coast of African and the Antarctic, your worries are over.

According to an update on NASA’s website: “The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California has determined the satellite entered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean at 14.1 degrees south latitude and 189.8 degrees east longitude (170.2 west longitude). This location is over a broad, remote ocean area in the Southern Hemisphere, far from any major land mass.”

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or UARS, officially fell back to Earth on between midnight on Friday and Saturday, according to NASA.

UARS splashdown site pinpointed.
This map shows the ground track for UARS beginning in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa at 0330 GMT and ending at atmospheric interface over the Pacific Ocean.

“Six years after the end of its productive scientific life, UARS broke into pieces during re-entry, and most of it up burned in the atmosphere,” NASA stated. “Twenty-six satellite components, weighing a total of about 1,200 pounds, could have survived the fiery re-entry and reach the surface of Earth.”

UARS was launched on Sept. 12, 1991 aboard a space shuttle to observe chemical components of the atmosphere for better understanding of photochemistry. The satellite also provided data on the amount of light that comes from the sun at ultraviolet and visible wavelengths, according to NASA.

When it was determined roughly 1,200 pounds worth of satellite debris could survive reentry and impact somewhere on Earth, several questions were posed–namely when and where. There was also the question of who should pay any damages if the satellite were to strike a person or property.

Insurers would likely have had to pick up the tab for damage claims filed under home, commercial property and comprehensive coverage in auto policies.

But someone without insurance, someone seriously injured, or an insurer looking to recover payment also had the option of turning to the federal government, according to an untested treaty signed by several space-faring governments nearly 50 years ago.

The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects sets forth rules for liability for damage caused by space objects. The convention was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations and was signed by all participating nations, which agreed to be “absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight.”

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