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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Chinese Long March 5B crashing back to Universe : Insurance and liability aspects !!

Comparing India and China is commonplace. But comparisons can often be odious.  The  social media post of the Chinese Communist Party comparing Indian funeral pyres with the images of its Long March 5B rocket’s launch was unabashed shame. The extremely distasteful caption of the post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, read: “China lighting a fire versus India lighting a fire.” .. .. then there is ‘Karma’ – what goes up ! comes cracking down !!!

Decades ago in 1979 – rumours ran so high that most people in globe feared a mighty fall from the sky a la Chicken do little – across India, especially Andhrapradesh, fear was high as according to some reports that object from the sky could hurtle in Karimnagar.  Some of them hid their wealth in the wells and some spent all the money they had saved for their enjoyment since they feared that lives would come to an end soon. Reportedly some sold their property and cattle at low prices ! – eventually some pieces were scattered across Australia, but no one on the ground was hit and no property damage was reported.

2020 was all about the Corona virus that emanated from China – WHO ensured that it was named Covid 19 with no reflection of its origin but the variants could have the name as British, Indian, South African .. .. .. now amidst the strong 2nd wave there is another fear – that of a large Chinese rocket stage reentering Earth’s atmosphere in the coming days and the potential impact of the falling debris. !! 

The Long March 5B successfully launched a 22.5-metric-ton core module of China’s first space station last week. During the launch, the first stage of the Long March 5B also reached orbital velocity instead of falling downrange as is common practice. That placed the empty rocket body in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled reentry in the coming days. [very clearly a failed launch but no one is talking about that !] The rocket stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means that reentry can be as far north as Chicago, New York City, Rome and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and Chile. That places any of the locations within the potential reentry path of this giant piece of space junk measuring 98 feet long by 16.5 feet wide and weighing 21 metric tons.  

Space debris (also known as space junk,  space garbage) is defunct human-made objects in space—principally in Earth orbit—which no longer serve a useful function. These include derelict spacecraft—nonfunctional spacecraft and abandoned launch vehicle stages—mission-related debris, and particularly numerous in Earth orbit, fragmentation debris from the breakup of derelict rocket bodies and spacecraft. In addition to derelict human-built objects left in orbit, other examples of space debris include fragments from their disintegration, erosion and collisions.  The fact is that such space debris can fall on you and the threat is this space junk measures 98 feet long by 16.5 feet wide and weighing 21 metric tons.  .. .. and that can cause colossal damage!   The innate fears that it creates in mankind (already frightened by Covid) is :

1)   can it cause physical harm meaning will it kill people

2)   will it damage my property – in which case will my Property insurance come to my rescue ! 

If you know Insurance and have taken a Property policy covering your assets (house property) – the coverage would be provided as per the  Standard Fire and Special Perils Policy (Material damage) which came into effect from April 2003.  These are annual policies and you will have to check when you paid premium last – if the cover is in force – the Fire Policy as it is called covers specified 12 perils from Fire / riots / floods / storm and without elaborating names ‘Aircraft damage’ too.   The standard definition of coverage here would be ‘fire and other damage caused to the property insured caused   directly by aircraft or any aerial device, (would damage caused by their falling) however,  damages due to pressure waves caused by aircraft traveling at supersonic speed are taken out from the policy,


Whether Insurers would indemnify such losses or would interpret that spacecrafts and articles falling from space are not intended to be covered – there cannot be a straight and definitive answer.   Interestingly effective 1st Apr 2021, Indian market has ‘Bharat Griha Raksha’ replacing Standard fire & special perils policy !


The introductory definition of this policy reads that ‘ the policy offers cover against a wide range of perils, namely Fire, Natural Catastrophes (Storm, Cyclone, Typhoon, Tempest, Hurricane, Tornado, Tsunami, Flood, Inundation, Earthquake, Subsidence, Landslide, Rockslide), Forest, Jungle and Bush fires, Impact Damage of any kind, Riot, Strike, Malicious Damages, Acts of terrorism, Bursting and overflowing of water tanks, apparatus and pipes, Leakage from automatic sprinkler installations and Theft within 7 days from the occurrence of any of the aforesaid events.  .. .. ‘aircraft damage’ does not appear here but the definition of Impact damage reads  :  Impact damage of any kind, i.e., damage caused by impact of, or collision caused by any external physical object (e.g. vehicle, falling trees, aircraft, wall etc.)  .. this could put the cause squarely within the parameters of coverage is a solace.


Then comes a larger Q – whether there would be liability for China to any party be it an individual or Nation for the damages caused arising out of falling rocket launched by it and whether Insurance coverage exists for such liability !!


Satellite Insurance would be an elitist subject unlikely to be understood by lesser mortals.  It was reported in 2019 that  Space rockets and satellites are likely to cost more to insure after the European Vega rocket crash which hit insurers with a record space market loss of 369 million euros ($411.21 million), insurance industry sources stated. The Vega rocket carrying a military observation satellite for the United Arab Emirates veered off course shortly after take-off and crashed. Prior to the accident, Italian aerospace company Avio Aero AVI.MI, which built the Vega, said it had a 100% success rate. 


The insurance loss for the rocket and satellite represented the largest recorded loss in the space market, it was reported. Till such instance, insurance premiums for commercial satellite and rocket accidents had been  falling due to strong competition among insurers and improved rocket reliability.  Vega crash, changed that course  leading to higher costs for space rocket launches.


Besides the gargantuan costs of the Satellites and its launches, there is aspect of probably liability out of its falling and causing damages.  The  issue of liability is framed by the general framework developed at the international level by means, principally, of Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty  and the Liability Convention.  The starting point in this respect is the principled allocation of liability for damage caused by a space object to the “launching State” or “launching States” of that space object. Article II of the Liability Convention provides in this respect: “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight,”  whereas Article III along the same lines provides: “In the event of damage being caused elsewhere than on the surface of the Earth to a space object of one launching State or to persons or property on board such a space object by a space object of another launching State, the latter shall be liable only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible.”


The Liability Convention defines the “launching State” for the purposes of these clauses as: “(i) A State which launches or procures the launching of a space object; (ii) A State from whose territory or facility a space object is launched.”  The fact that this definition may result in several states being liable for the same damage-causing event—a space object may be launched by one state on behalf of another, which thus has “procured” the launch in question —does not take away any liability but merely results in liability being joint and several.


The Liability Convention was considered and negotiated by the Legal subcommittee from 1963 to 1972. Agreement was reached in the General Assembly in 1971 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.  The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, also known as the Space Liability Convention, is a treaty from 1972 that expands on the liability rules created in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In 1978, the crash of the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite Kosmos 954 in Canadian territory led to the only claim filed under the Convention.


Before concluding the odious comparison of the social media post comparing Indian funeral pyres with Long March 5B rocket launch fire,  the biggest blowback came from the Chinese public, who derided the post by the CCP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, or Zhongyang Zhengfawei, as “inappropriate”, and called for a nationwide expression of sympathy for India, in line with President Xi Jinping’s own remarks a day earlier. The original post was subsequently deleted, surviving only in screenshots circulated across Weibo and global social media platforms. But karma can be quite a leveller. Because the story doesn’t end here. The international media’s focus has shifted from the Zhongyang Zhengfawei’s social media faux pas to that Long March 5B rocket featured in the post.  No matter what becomes of China’s space debris, this turn of event makes the timing and nature of that Sina Weibo post doubly unfortunate, and represents egg on the face of Guo Shengkun, a prominent CCP official and head of Zhongyang Zhengfawei.


But knowing China well, it is has perhaps planted sleeper cells so well that such incidents will not mar its reputation nor prevent their recurrence ! Sad ! – the immediate solace is that according to present reports ‘India reportedly is off the radar of the falling debris’


With regards – S. Sampathkumar

7th May 2021.


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