WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved legislation Dec. 17 that would extend federal liability protection for commercial space launch providers against catastrophic events through 2012.

Under the measure, the U.S. government would continue to indemnify commercial launch operators against third-party claims for launch-related damages that exceed $500 million, up to a total of $1.5 billion. After the $1.5 billion threshold is reached, the liability reverts to the commercial launch operator.

First established by Congress as part of the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 1988, the commercial space transportation risk-sharing liability and insurance regime has been extended four times. With the current extension set to expire at the end of December, the U.S. House of Representatives in October approved a three-year extension.

During a Dec. 17 executive session of the Senate commerce committee, Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the panel’s chairman, said the legislation would help U.S. commercial space firms compete globally.

“Normally I’m not one who supports indemnifying the private sector for liability, but I recognize that our commercial space industry needs this federal protection in order to compete with others around the globe,” Rockefeller said. “Today’s legislation extends that liability for another three years, that is until December 2012, and I expect we will reassess the market before that time to see if the commercial space industry is ready to assume full risk and responsibility.”

The legislation must now be considered by the full Senate.