Floridians sue NASA after space junk destroys family home

After space debris hit a house in Florida, one family asked NASA to pay for the damages, which could set a new precedent for aerospace companies, all while holding them accountable.

On May 22, 2024, Attorney Mica Nguyen Worthy submitted a claim to NASA to recover damages for her clients resulting from a space debris incident involving property owner Alejandro Otero and his family.

The incident happened on March 8th, when Florida resident Alejandro Otero’s house was struck by an unidentified object from the sky. “It tore through the roof and went through two floors. Almost hit my son,” Otero said in a post on X.

Image by Alejandro Otero via X

At the time, NASA told Cybernews that it had collected the item in cooperation with the homeowner and would analyze the object at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida “as soon as possible” to determine its origin.

NASA confirmed in a statement on April 15th that the object is part of a cargo pallet containing aging nickel hydride batteries. In 2021, NASA used the International Space Station’s (ISS) robotic arm to dump old hardware into space while replacing it with new hardware.

It was expected that the 2.9 tons of space debris would fully burn upon entering Earth’s atmosphere on March 8th, 2024. Unfortunately, “a piece of hardware survived re-entry and impacted a home in Naples, Florida.

The victims are seeking “adequate compensation“ through legal processes. “They are grateful that no one sustained physical injuries from this incident, but a ‘near miss’ situation such as this could have been catastrophic. If the debris had hit a few feet in another direction, there could have been serious injury or a fatality," said the attorney in a statement from the law firm representing the family.

In the letter, Worthy points out that, under the Space Liability Convention, NASA would be liable if the debris caused damage in another country and asks that the same standards be applied to US citizens.

This space debris claim is historical in that it involves a “real-life example” of the consequences of space debris surviving on the Earth’s surface. The incident has the potential to set a precedent for governments and private space companies regarding compensation for victims of similar incidents in the future.

Space garbage is a huge problem

This space junk problem is on the rise as more and more space objects circulate Earth’s orbit. One study suggests that the scale of satellite debris is on course to give Earth its very own Saturn-like rings made up entirely of space junk.

Space debris might turn back on Earth’s population by putting it at risk of injuries and destruction. In November 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned that falling debris from SpaceX‘s Starlink satellites could injure or kill a person every two years and threaten to down an aircraft.

There have been calls for regulation, with NASA and other regulatory bodies calling for an international treaty, currently being debated at the UN, that would include measures to make both satellite producers and users responsible for satellites and debris from the time they launch through to the end of their lives.

Kyoto University in Japan has addressed the garbage challenge by creating the world’s first wooden satellite made of magnolia wood. The satellite will travel to space on a SpaceX rocket in September.