What to do if the toxic space station hits your house

This Easter weekend, an 8.5-tonne space station is expected to crash back to Earth.

China launched Tiangong-1 in 2011, but five years later they lost control of it. Barrelling through the sky at 28,000km/h, the 10m-long station is expected to at least partially survive its descent through the atmosphere.

Debris is likely to rain down over an area hundreds of square kilometres in size, with Christchurch potentially in the firing line.

While astronomers have estimated there's only a one-in-292 trillion chance it'll hit a person, that's more than zero. And houses are bigger than people - so what if it hits your house? Or you?

"Call your friendly space lawyer," laughed lawyer Maria Pozza, when Newshub got in touch.

Dr Pozza specialises in space law - perhaps the only person in New Zealand who does. Her advice is try not to panic, and before you contact her or anyone else, call the police.

"I'm hoping that the police would contact their local Member of Parliament, who would then instigate a chain reaction through the various channels of Government.

Yellow shows the areas most likely to be hit by Tiangong-1.
Yellow shows the areas most likely to be hit by Tiangong-1. Photo credit: Aerospace Corporation

"First of all, you have to be sure the asset does actually belong who you think it belongs to - in this case, you need to make sure it is part of the Chinese space station - of course it could have been something else belonging to someone else.

"Once we've determined who the asset belongs to, then the Government will undertake necessary negotiations and discussions with the owner of the asset and thereafter probably start negotiations in relation to claims of damages, fault. There will be investigation nonetheless."

Whatever you do, don't touch it - not only could the debris be toxic, dangerously hot and have razor-sharp edges, if it's damaged or lost, you could be held liable.

"According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a country's spacecraft is their legal property until they say that it's not their legal property, no matter where it lands," space historian Robert Pearlman told website Livescience.

A man who found a piece of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 narrowly avoided jail in 2001 when he tried to sell it on eBay.

Are you eligible for compensation?

Provided you survive the ridiculously unlikely close encounter, whether you'll get compensation is a grey area that hasn't been tested in court yet - space stations don't crash to Earth every day, you know.

The Chinese may very well have taken out an insurance policy covering this very situation, so they don't have to pay themselves.

"The insurers may very well pay out," said Dr Pozza. "If there is no insurance, then whichever nation that the asset belongs to may very well have to come to the table and offer some assistance in form of money to the person who suffered damage."

As no one in New Zealand has ever been hit by anything from outer space, ACC has never had to pay out for such a claim. ACC told Newshub if any Kiwis are injured by Tiangong-1, they would be covered because it's a 'no-fault' scheme.

"Just make you wear a safety hat until the space station comes down," an ACC spokesman joked.

Death from above

But what if you're unlucky enough to be killed by Tiangong-1? It depends.

"Was the asset being controlled?" asked Dr Pozza. "Did they lose control? Was someone negligent in relation to the control over the asset? Did it happen by accident? It's really hard to give an assertive answer. It would really depend on the situation."

There are a number of treaties which regulate space. New Zealand has signed up to three - the Outer Space Treaty 1967, the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects 1968, and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space 1972.

We're yet to sign the other two major treaties governing space - the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, and the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Dr Pozza says New Zealand might soon, considering our recent entry into the space race through Rocket Lab.

What else does a space lawyer do?

As mentioned above, things launched into space don't often survive the trip back - so what does a space lawyer do when no one's being bopped on the head?

"Just because there hasn't been a crash, or a break-up of a space station with debris in everyone's yards; just because that hasn't happened, doesn't mean there aren't legal issues in the background," says Dr Pozza.

Dr Maria Pozza is an international space law expert.
Dr Maria Pozza is an international space law expert. Photo credit: University of Otago

"When people wish to launch something or put a payload on a launch vehicle they have to apply for licences; there are contracts between parties as well - who's going to pay for the research and design of the payload, who's going to pay for the space on the launch vehicle; what happens if something happens to the payload on the way to outer space, or the launch vehicle blows up.

"There's all sorts of things that happen, a lot of contracts that need negotiation and need drafting up. It's just corporate law at its very finest...another day's work."