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Launched in 2002, Envisat is mammoth compared with other Earth observation satellites.

The European Space Agency (ESA) faces the uncomfortable choice of either actively removing its dead Envisat satellite from low Earth orbit or risk being held liable if Envisat damages another satellite, according to a member of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL).

Because it elected to continue operating Envisat until it had too little fuel to be powered to a lower orbit, as international guidelines prescribe, ESA could be held liable for negligence, or even gross negligence, if Envisat or pieces of it damage an active satellite in the 100-plus years Envisat will remain in orbit, according to the IISL analysis.

In a presentation in Naples, Italy, to the 63rd International Astronautical Congress, Martha Mejia-Kaiser, an IISL member from the Autonomous National University of Mexico, said Envisat is a “ticking bomb” that poses an unusually large danger to a heavily populated corridor in polar orbit at 780 kilometers in altitude.

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