The legal status of objects printed in outer space

Let’s focus in this article on 3D printed space objects. With regard to future space projects (the European project of creating a lunar base or “Moon village”, the colonization and terraforming of planet Mars) and the development of new technologies, it is necessary to question the notion of space object, crucial in the field of space law and keystone of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue Agreement, the 1972 Liability Convention, the 1975 Registration Convention, and the 1979 Moon Agreement. When Sputnik I became the first object launched into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957, no definitive legal classification existed for such an object, and since the beginnings of the Space Conquest, many inventions, objects or projects have been born. There are now people and companies actively discussing in-space manufacturing of satellites and other objects, some even going so far as to discuss making them out of material sourced from outer space.

Today, the Airbus group is developing a demonstrator that will be able to autonomously assemble elements in outer space (3D printed space objects). This new type of space-factory could build satellites or even be used to build future space stations. This project’s schedule is very real: Airbus intends to place the space-factory “Space Digital Factory” in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 2021. A project led by the Airbus Defence and Space (ADS) branch which consists in developing an autonomous robotic system capable of assembling various elements in outer space. The only schematic illustration available for the moment suggests arms grabbing panels to assemble. “It will allow us to imagine much larger structures” and overcome the vibratory constraints of the launch. The first applications could concern the assembly of satellites, antennas and many other equipment.

If people are to live on Mars, they’ll need a place to stay. That means all the labs, compounds, and greenhouses of science fiction must be built to survive the harsh weather in outer space. 3D printing is a great way to use machines to quickly construct structures, even in a zero-gravity environment. Maybe some robots will be developed and build basic buildings and roads before living beings arrive. Behrokh Khoshnevis has been working for years on robots that can 3D print buildings by extruding concrete, and is leading the research to bring the technology to Mars. The method of printing buildings has been dubbed “contour crafting”. It works much the same way as traditional 3D printing, except the machines are much larger and instead of extruding plastic, it uses concrete.

The term “space object” is important in Space Law and Public International Law. This notion will become of more practical importance with the expansion of space activities (International Space Station, space tourism, Moon, Mars…). What will be the legal status of objects built in outer space? Will outer-space-3D-printed objects be considered space objects?

The definition of a space object

The term Object in reference to outer space was first used in 1961 in General Assembly Resolution 1721 (XVI) titled International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space to describe any object launched by States into outer space. Professor Bin Cheng, a world authority on International Air and Space Law, has noted that members of the COPUOS during negotiations over the space treaties treated spacecraft and space vehicles as synonymous terms. The Space Object can be considered as the conventional launcher, the reusable launcher, the satellite, the orbital station, the probe, the impactor, the space telescope…

The term “space object” is not precisely defined by the Onusian space treaties. Let’s note that the five outer space treaties use such phrases as “objects launched into outer space”, object placed “in orbit around the Earth”, “in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the Moon”, or “around other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the Earth”. Some of the treaties refer also to “spacecraft”, or “landed or constructed on a celestial body”, “man-made space objects”, “space vehicle”, “supplies”, “equipment”, “installations”, “facilities” and “stations”.

Let’s remember that “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”, article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969. In addition, “Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31: (a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or (b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable”, article 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969.

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t really provide a definition for “object launched into outer space” other than an indication in Article VIII that it includes the “component parts” of the “object launched into outer space”. It states that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

Following the interpretation of the Liability Convention, the term launching should be interpreted as widely as possible as to include all objects directly constructed or manufactured in the outer space having movable or immovable nature into the legal category of space objects.

3D printed objects

3D printing (aka additive manufacturing), which offers many advantages to manufacturers, such as prototyping, is a process that creates an object by iteratively building two-dimensional layers and joining each to the layer below. Every 3D-printed object begins with a digital design created with computer-aided design (CAD) software or animation modelling software. The design serves as a “virtual blueprint” that is sent to the 3D printer, which “prints” the object. 3D printing also offers benefits for manufacturing finished products. For example, 3D printing allows for the creation of products with a level of complexity that is not possible using traditional methods of manufacture and can result in cost savings from the elimination of excess material and waste.

Many categories of 3D printing, which depend on material (which can include powder, plastics, metal, food, wood and/or concrete) and process, have been identified. Today, advanced 3D printing is limited by the palette of standard polymers and metal alloys. A wider assortment of novel materials, from living cells to semiconductors, is under development.

3D printing in outer space, which means a lot for the sustainability of space travel, has become feasible as already proven by the scientific investigation carried on the International Space Station (ISS) by NASA and ESA. In 2014, NASA scientists aboard the ISS 3D printed a ratchet wrench using files transmitted from Earth. Future potential includes custom tools made in space, according to the astronaut’s needs. The lack of gravity in space is also convenient, as pesky overhangs are non-existent. Also, the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently experimenting with 3D printing satellites in a special thermoplastic called PEEK. CubeSats are satellites about ten centimetres in size. They’re small, stackable, and can be connected with other CubeSats to create a satellite system. Polyether ether ketone (PEEK) is a colourless organic thermoplastic polymer in the polyaryletherketone (PAEK) family, used in engineering applications. It is the new and robust material that these CubeSats are printed in.

This process involves shaping of heated polymeric material, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Moreover, scientists have already tested in air and under vacuum that the production in outer space through additive manufacturing out of extra-terrestrial resources, such as regolith (regolith is somewhat like sand little bits of crushed rock created by millennia of asteroid impacts. However, since there is very little weathering compared to Earth, regolith is basically super-sharp dust), could be feasible. Such a printed object, unlike traditional object foreseen by the major outer space treaties, is not launched in outer space, but manufactured in outer space. 3D printed objects can be recycled and made into entirely different objects. This would be incredibly useful on long trips when only limited materials are available on board.

If we examine both a 3D printer and an earth-brought material that would be used as ink (in the case of 3D printed space objects), in a scientific experiment aboard the ISS for example, those two objects would be considered a payload of a space object on whose board both objects were originally launched. Through the use of one space object (3D printer) via another space object (the material used as ink), a new object would be created. This object would be considered a space object. Materials launched into outer space from Earth are component parts and the final product could therefore be a space object of sorts. What about its launching state? Well, because the launching operation aims at sending an object in outer space, we believe that a newly-created object will become a space object whose launching state will be the State at whose facilities an object was manufactured or from whose facilities the astronauts or robotic instruments were send to install the object.

If an object is made from extraterrestrial material or a mix of extraterrestrial and earth-brought material, the question would have to be answered the same way. The extraterrestrial material used as ink will not be considered a payload of a space object but from the moment an object created through additive manufacturing would be an object launched or placed, deployed…, it will fulfil the definition of a space object. The term space object can either be interpreted as something launched, or as something conveyed (placing, installing or even producing an object in the outer space or on a celestial body). We could interrogate the notion of “destination”. It implicates the “general aim or purpose”. As soon as an object is outer-space-aimed, we could consider it a space object. The term space object is indeed the commonly used expression, but it must always be borne in mind that its exact meaning is still not quite clear. Professor Stephan Hobe defines the space object as “intended to be used in (as opposed to merely transit through) outer space”. We could amalgamate the intention as “intended” with the “destination” mentioned above.

As a conclusion, objects assembled in outer space are space objects, so are 3D printed space objects. We hope these questions will be discussed at the Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). That is what we can say about 3D printed space objects.