Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Match Alert: Your gift will be matched when you support local reporting that's fair, factual, and fearless.

A hunk of space junk crashed through his roof in Florida. Who should pay to fix it?

In March 2021, mission controllers in Houston used the Canadarm2 robotic arm to release an external pallet packed with old nickel-hydrogen batteries from the International Space Station. Three years later, part of that assembly struck a house in Naples, Fla.
NASA
In March 2021, mission controllers in Houston used the Canadarm2 robotic arm to release an external pallet packed with old nickel-hydrogen batteries from the International Space Station. Three years later, part of that assembly struck a house in Naples, Fla.

Updated April 23, 2024 at 4:08 PM ET

Alejandro Otero was out of town on vacation last month when his son called from their house in Naples, Fla., to tell him something shocking and incredible. His son, 19, had been home alone when he heard an extremely loud crash — and realized it came from inside the house.

"When he called me to give me the news, he asked us to make sure we were sitting down to hear when he had to tell us," Otero told NPR.

"He wasn't even sure how to tell me what happened and we had to look and listen to the security cameras to try to piece together what caused the loud crashing noise," he said. "It looked like it caused the whole house to shake, so we weren't sure if there had been an earthquake or what. When he saw the hole coming through the house, he realized something fell through."

Mystery object is finally identified

After rushing back home, Otero called the sheriff's department — and a deputy who came to the house pulled a hunk of metal out of the floorboards.

"It was not like anything I had ever seen before," Otero said.

He quickly realized the object wasn't a meteorite. It was cylindrical, and while one end was melted by the heat of reentry, the other had a smooth round shape with a circular indentation. A shallow and uniform groove ran down its side.

Otero set out to learn what the object was, posting images and video online. He landed on a likely, yet extraordinary, suspect: a large battery pallet from the International Space Station that NASA released for an uncontrolled reentry, three years ago.

The European Space Agency had warned that the batteries and pallet would reenter the atmosphere in the early afternoon of March 8. Otero's house was hit that day, shortly after 2:30 p.m. ET.

NASA says this stanchion, at right, had been expected to burn up during reentry, but instead it struck a man's house in Florida. The object is seen here next to another stanchion in pristine shape, at left.
/ NASA
/
NASA
NASA says this stanchion, at right, had been expected to burn up during reentry, but instead it struck a man's house in Florida. The object is seen here next to another stanchion in pristine shape, at left.

"The location of the reentry was predicted by the 18th Space Defense Squadron to be in the Gulf of Mexico," the Aerospace Corporation, a research and development nonprofit that advises the U.S. government, said in a statement to NPR. "Naples FL was directly downrange of that location and in the direction that the debris would have been traveling."

NASA retrieved the object from Otero's home, and it recently confirmed the object was part of the battery pallet — a remnant of some 5,800 pounds of hardware — that was jettisoned from the space station. The "space object" was a stanchion, NASA said, that held the batteries on a cargo pallet. The surviving object was a little smaller than a soda can and made of Inconel, a superalloy that is strong and heat-resistant.

"We feel very lucky and blessed"

When the object hit Otero's house in southwest Florida, his son was just a couple rooms over from the impact point.

"We can't help but think about what could have happened if it came through just a little to the right or to the left, how much more disastrous the situation could have been," Otero said. "We feel very lucky and blessed that everyone was OK."

But the incident also prompted immediate concerns — from how to deal with a hole in the roof to whether the object might be dangerous or toxic. For a while, Otero's son was on his own.

"Being alone at the house was worrisome, because he didn't know if the debris was hazardous (or what it was)," Otero said via email. That concern grew, Otero said, when he later realized the object may have been linked to a power module used in space.

"Once NASA got in touch with us, my lawyer asked for reasonable assurance from them that the item was not toxic or hazardous," Otero said. "NASA was able to give that assurance," he added, and his family was relieved when the agency didn't send people in hazmat suits to retrieve the object.

"The hardware was expected to fully burn up during entry through Earth's atmosphere," NASA said after conducting its analysis. The agency is working to figure out how part of it hit Otero's house, adding that it may need to tweak the engineering models it uses to estimate how objects break up during atmospheric reentry.

The incident highlights concerns over the amount of space junk in Earth's orbit, and it raises a rare and complicated question: Who should pay to repair a home that's hit by debris plummeting from orbit?

Filing a claim on damage from a space object

When asked how much damage the space object caused, Otero says his homeowners' insurance set the adjusted cost at more than $15,000, adding that he's also been evaluating other damages not covered by insurance.

"We are in the process of sending NASA our claim which will include the insurance and non-insurance damages," he says, adding that his lawyer has been in touch with NASA's legal counsel.

Otero says his insurer quickly helped in bringing in contractors to do repair work.

So, who might finally be held liable for this sort of damage, when an object launched into space crashes into someone's home?

"This is kind of unprecedented," Mark Sundahl, who has worked in space law for more than 20 years, told NPR. Determining liability in such cases can be complicated, he said.

"It will depend on whose module of the space station that came from," said Sundahl, who is the director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University.

"We have an international convention on liability for damage caused by outer space objects. It's from 1972. So we have rules in place."

If space debris falls back to Earth, Sundahl said, "The launching state is absolutely liable for any damage to property or persons that occurs on the surface of the Earth."

"There's a different rule for [incidents] in space," he added. "If one satellite hits another satellite there, it's not absolute strict liability — you have to show fault. But when something lands on an innocent person and it's in their house, there's strict liability."

But, Sundahl added, if the object in question turns out to be part of a U.S. module, "then the international law no longer applies. It becomes a domestic legal issue, and a homeowner would have to bring a tort action against the federal government."

In the Naples incident, the object seems to be of U.S. origin: NASA says the stanchion came from "NASA flight support equipment." The agency didn't immediately respond to an inquiry from NPR about possible liability.

Has anything like this happened before?

"We had a major accident" involving an object falling out of orbit decades ago, Sundahl said.

In 1978, a Soviet satellite, Kosmos 954, "disintegrated over Canada and scattered radioactive fuel across the country," he said. "And they helped clean it up — in accordance with international law, they paid expenses."

About once every week, Europe's space agency says, a large space object reenters the atmosphere, "with the majority of the associated fragments burning up before reaching the ground."

There have been many cases of space-program debris reentering Earth's atmosphere and not burning up completely before falling to the surface, Sundahl says. But those usually fall into the ocean; he's not aware of any confirmed reports of man-made space objects causing damage as in Florida recently.

There is at least one documented case of a person being hurt by something falling from the heavens. A woman in Alabama was struck by a meteorite that crashed into her home in 1954 (she survived with a bruise) — but that case didn't involve space debris. And in 1997, an Oklahoma woman was outside when she was tapped on her shoulder by a piece of mesh from a Delta II rocket.

"So this is something new," in Florida, said Sundahl, whose group recently hosted a symposium on threats posed by orbital debris. The U.S. is currently tracking nearly 45,000 objects in orbit, including some 18,800 pieces of space debris, according to Space-Track.org, U.S. Space Command's public website.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that that's the greatest existing threat to humanity's use of outer space, that we're polluting the orbits to the extent where it could become difficult to use them at all," Sundahl said.

He says he's "very optimistic" that changes to law and policies can reduce or eliminate threats to orbit-based systems.

"We're all so reliant on space infrastructure in so many different ways," he said.

The International Space Station, which is roughly the size of a football field, is itself the subject of a "deorbit" plan, as it nears the end of its useful life after more than two decades of continuous human occupancy. NASA says the station will remain operational until at least 2030, and it's planning on "a controlled re-entry, targeted into a remote, uninhabited area in the ocean."

As for Otero, he says, "There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this event. I hope no one else has to go through this. It was really scary for our whole family and we are just very grateful that no one got physically hurt."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.