The legal status of Chinese space-based solar power stations

There might soon be Chinese space-based solar power stations orbiting around the Earth: what would their legal status be? This breathtaking project might revolutionize our relationship to energy, outer space, and History. It might also of course raise deeply interesting space law related questions.

Let’s recall that, if it is the biggest polluter on the planet, China also holds a title of world champion: a few years were enough for the most populous country to reach its 2020 solar energy production target by 2017. The country has the largest solar park in the world, and is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels and a major investor in renewable energy.

In Reason, a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov first published in 1941, practical engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are assigned to a space station which supplies energy via microwave beams to planets; is science fiction about to become reality?

Space-based solar power

Space-based solar power (SBSP) is the concept of collecting solar power in outer space and distributing it to Earth. Potential advantages of collecting solar energy in space include a higher collection rate and a longer collection period due to the lack of a diffusing atmosphere, and the possibility of placing a solar collector in an orbiting location where there is no night.

Space-based solar power systems convert sunlight to microwaves outside the atmosphere, avoiding these losses and the downtime due to the Earth’s rotation, but at great cost due to the expense of launching material into orbit. SBSP is considered a form of sustainable or green energy, renewable energy, and is occasionally considered among climate engineering proposals. It is attractive to those seeking large-scale solutions to anthropogenic climate change or fossil fuel depletion.

Various SBSP proposals have been researched since the early 1970s, but none are economically viable with present-day space launch infrastructure. Some technologists speculate that this may change in the distant future if an off-world industrial base were to be developed that could manufacture solar power satellites out of asteroids or lunar material, or if radical new space launch technologies other than rocketry should become available in the future.

Besides the cost of implementing such a system, SBSP also introduces several technological hurdles, including the problem of transmitting energy from orbit to Earth’s surface for use. Since wires extending from Earth’s surface to an orbiting satellite are neither practical nor feasible with current technology, SBSP designs generally include the use of some manner of wireless power transmission with its concomitant conversion inefficiencies, as well as land use concerns for the necessary antenna stations to receive the energy at Earth’s surface. The collecting satellite would convert solar energy into electrical energy on board, powering a microwave transmitter or laser emitter, and transmit this energy to a collector on Earth’s surface.

Chinese space-based solar power stations

Is there a new Space Race? After successfully completing the first-ever lunar landing of History on the far side of the Moon, China, with the second largest budget allocated to a space program, intends to send into orbit a giant solar farm by 2025. The Middle Kingdom has announced plans to build a space solar station that would supply the Earth with electricity.

In concrete terms, the solar power station would float thirty-six thousand kilometres from the Earth, capture solar energy before sending it back to Earth. The idea may sound like science fiction, but it would be particularly effective. In any case, China believes in the project. The country has announced plans to build a solar power plant that gravitates around the Earth. Full exploitation could be considered for 2050. A solar power plant is based on the conversion of sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP). Concentrated solar power systems use lenses, mirrors, and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. Photovoltaics converts light into electric current using the photoelectric effect.

The explosion of demography on our planet results in an increase in energy needs. To meet these needs, renewable energies are slowly becoming a part of our society, even if fossil fuels still seem to have a good time ahead. That’s why China thinks it has found a solution, far from our planet. Chinese scientists believe that solar energy directly from outer space would be much more effective than that harvested from Earth. Hence the idea of launching several small power plants in the stratosphere, between 2021 and 2025, before crossing the level of the megawatt in 2030 and that of the gigawatt by 2050.

The advantage of a solar power station is that it would no longer depend on terrestrial climate hazards (a considerable fraction of incoming solar energy is lost on its way through the Earth’s atmosphere by the effects of reflection and absorption) and would thus be an inexhaustible source of energy for its operators. China says such an installation could “reliably deliver 99% of the time, at a sixfold intensity” to solar infrastructures installed on Earth.

The Chinese space-based solar power stations could weigh around one thousand tons, which would certainly not facilitate its launch. Not to mention the transport of energy to the Earth. Researchers are imagining the possibility of building space-based solar power stations directly in outer space using robots and 3D printing. Let’s mention that Japan (in 2015, along with researchers from Mitsubishi, the JAXA announced that it was working on microwave transmission technology, which would allow long-distance energy transport, without cable) and the United States of America (after a first attempt by NASA in the 1950s, Caltech researchers announced that they had recently created a prototype that can contain and transmit solar energy from space using lightweight solar panels) have studied in the past the possibility of harvesting solar energy from outer space.

The solar power station in orbit would capture the Sun’s rays as it does for all solar power plants. The problem is to transport this energy to Earth safely, without loss and in the exact place. For this, the energy must be converted into microwaves or into a laser beam. Two techniques still being studied in particular because of the possibly negative effects of the radiation of these microwaves on the atmosphere. This important aspect is not yet settled, but the Chinese authorities have already begun the construction of an experimental centre in Chongqing, a major city in southwest China.

The legal status of Chinese space-based solar power stations

This project would indeed raise many legal questions, like the solar power station’s legal status, the access to a geostationary orbit (often referred to as a geosynchronous equatorial orbit, it is a circular orbit above Earth’s equator and following the direction of Earth’s rotation), the fact that Public International Space Law, and especially Article I of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, imposes that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind”… Could China use a solar power station in orbit (which implies using solar energy; can it be considered a celestial resource?, as well as monopolizing a rare orbital position; is the geostationary orbit a limited resource?).

The solar power station’s legal status

This type of energy-satellite would be considered a space object. If we examine both a 3D printer and an earth-brought material that would be used as ink, 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. In our case, China.

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 objects.

Solar energy’s legal status

If we go back as early as 1963, to the studies of space law before the space treaties and before any significant use of space had started, to M.S. McDougal, H.D. Lasswell, I.A. Vlasic, Law and Public Order in Space, we can find a categorisation of resources into basically three different categories. They are:

1) Spatial-extension resources, which are used as means of transport and communication.

2) Flow resources, like solar and radiation.

3) Stock resources, like minerals and traditional resources planned to be mined in the future. They require, to my understanding, somewhat different legal regulation. Stock resources are presumably exhaustible and the extraction presupposes at least some exclusivity, generating potential legal problems, depending on how you interpret the non-appropriation and freedom of use principles.

The issue of collecting energy in space does not have to entail any conflict with the established principles of space law since solar energy is considered vast, unlimited and inexhaustible. Solar energy is not subject to appropriation at the present stage of science and technology. Also, the fact that space objects have relied on solar energy for their power without anyone protesting against it, indicates that collecting such energy is not in violation of space law or general international law. Though, this “precedent” does not necessarily form a basis for a customary rule allowing the use of solar energy, but it does, in fact, reinforce the view that the practice is not prohibited by existing space law.

The freedom of use of orbits and frequencies

Near-Earth space is formed of different orbital layers. Terrestrial orbits are limited common resources and inherently repugnant to any appropriation: they are not property in the sense of law. Orbits and frequencies are res communis (a Latin term derived from Roman law that preceded today’s concepts of the commons and common heritage of mankind; it has relevance in international law and common law). It’s the first-come, first-served principle that applies to orbital positioning, which without any formal acquisition of sovereignty, records a promptness behaviour to which it grants an exclusive grabbing effect of the space concerned. Geostationary orbit is a limited but permanent resource: this de facto appropriation by the first-comers – the developed countries – of the orbit and the frequencies is protected by Space Law and the International Telecommunications Law. The challenge by developing countries of grabbing these resources is therefore unjustified on the basis of existing law. Denying new entrants geostationary-access or making access more difficult does not constitute appropriation; it simply results from the traditional system of distribution of access rights. The practice of developed States is based on free access and priority given to the first satellites placed in geostationary orbit.

The geostationary orbit is part of outer space and, as such, the customary principle of non-appropriation and the 1967 Space Treaty apply to it. The equatorial countries have claimed sovereignty, then preferential rights over this space. These claims are contrary to the 1967 Treaty and customary law. However, they testify to the concern of the equatorial countries, shared by developing countries, in the face of saturation and seizure of geostationary positions by developed countries. The regime of res communis of outer space in Space Law (free access and non-appropriation) does not meet the demand of the developing countries that their possibilities of future access to the geostationary orbit and associated radio frequencies are guaranteed. New rules appear necessary and have been envisaged to ensure the access of all States to these positions and frequencies.

As a conclusion, we may say that those Chinese space-based solar power stations would be considered space objects, the solar energy they would be exploiting would be free of use, and the orbital position they would occupy would have to obey the first-come, first-served principle that applies to orbital positioning. Concerning Article I of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which imposes that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind”, “the benefit and in the interests of all countries” doesn’t prohibit private exploitation, as it is the case with satellite navigation, satellite television and commercial satellite imagery for example.