TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Editors' Note: The photo above is a piece of spacecraft debris found in 2018.
The old adage "finders, keepers" no longer applies in the state of Florida when it comes to space debris.
HB 221, Recovery of Spaceflight Assets, became law on July 1 after being signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The new law means anyone who doesn't report finding pieces of spacecraft after re-entry could be fined and charged.
"The bill prohibits a person to use a spaceflight asset that he or she finds. Instead, the person must report the asset’s location to law enforcement, which must make a reasonable effort to identify and contact the asset’s owner," the law reads.
The change in legislation comes at a major point in the modern-day space race between billionaires and the continued expansion of reusable rocketry. Plus, both NASA and several commercial space companies, like SpaceX, call Florida home on launch day.
Here's how it works: Space vehicles, their parts and additional "spaceflight assets" are now ultimately protected by the law. Meaning, if one miraculously fell to Earth and landed in your backyard, you'd need to report it. The same applies if you were to find space debris really anywhere in the state.
Under the law, the spaceflight entity to which these major parts belong to will retain ownership upon re-entry "regardless of the physical condition or location." The only noted exception is if the company clearly indicates it wishes to abandon the part.
As for how far-reaching the law is, if you find a nut or a bolt, no one will be coming to knock on your door. Space entities will, however, want to recover things like crewed and uncrewed capsules, launch vehicles, parachutes, landing gear, and any ancillary equipment.
Anyone who tries to knowingly keep a piece of space debris in Florida will be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor which carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine not exceeding $1,000.
A court could also order an individual who refused to turn over the spacecraft part to pay restitution in the case that the asset was damaged or unable to be recovered.
If you're scratching you're head, trying to believe that people intentionally recover spacecraft items to either keep or sell online-- it happens.
“Some of the parts, when we come back in for descent of the capsule, they have to jettison a door in order for the parachutes to deploy and it’s well-marked," Sen. Tom Wright said earlier this year. "And what’s happened is they’ve been picked up by boaters that have unfortunately gone out in the area of recovery and really caused an issue and then they’ve attempted to sell that item on eBay.”
In August 2020, the splashdown of the historic Crew Dragon capsule was hampered when private boaters swarmed the recovery area. Images from the incident showed at least 20 boats surrounding the capsule with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside.
"That was not what we were anticipating," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference, at the time.
SpaceX representative, Jeffery Sharkey, has previously been vocal in the company's support of the now-law, saying the parts are intellectual property and that "it’s super important that this goes back to the space launch company and doesn’t end up on eBay.”
10 Tampa Bay has reached out to NASA, SpaceX and ULA for comment. This story will be updated as we hear back.
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