Space-Based Solar Power

a public discussion sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation

Communitarian Laws versus Venture Capitalism

Posted by Coyote on June 24, 2007

United Nations Treaties and Principles
On Outer Space, UN, New York, 2002

Do international treaties and laws impede the development of space-based solar power?

Last week at small symposium in Colorado, a professor of space law argued that the profits from any resource harvested from space, to include energy, must be shared with all of humanity and that this principle is enshrined in Article I of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967:

“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.”

Well, so much for making a business case for space-based solar power!

But wait a minute you might say, what about profits from commercial ventures already on orbit, such as communications, imagery, plans for Galileo, and the like…should those companies be sharing profits with all of us?

Extrapolating from the professor’s comments, no, those companies are not removing anything from space, but space-based solar power would–it would remove energy from space and broadcasting it to Earth for profit–therefore the profits must be shared with everyone on the planet.

What is up with that? More importantly, what is to be done about that?


14 Responses to “Communitarian Laws versus Venture Capitalism”

  1. shubber said

    Extrapolating from the professor’s comments, no, those companies are not removing anything from space, but space-based solar power would–it would remove energy from space and broadcasting it to Earth for profit–therefore the profits must be shared with everyone on the planet.

    What is up with that? More importantly, what is to be done about that?


    I’d suggest you not waste your time on this one. Existing commercial operations more than set the precedent, the Professor’s comments notwithstanding.

    Here’s why:

    Comsats (and navsats and imaging birds and the ISS and satellites of which we will not speak from the Agency which we will not name) all use power harnessed from the Sun with their existing solar arrays. The magnitude of the sunlight they use is irrelevant. That they take power propagating through outer space and convert it to energy in a form that can be used to sustain commercial activities invalidates the argument that such activity would be prohibited by any Outer Space treaty.

    If not, every Intelsat and SES satellite up there (worth billions, by the way) would be breaking the law. If the Professor counter-argues that commercial companies are not covered under the domain of the Outer Space treaty than the simple solution for SBSP is to set up a public/private partnership, with the facility owned by a private entity but supported by government.

    problem solved.

    (not that there really was a problem, anyway…)

  2. Mike Snead said

    No, the problem is far from solved. The proposal for the U.S. to join the Law of the Sea Convention contains similar language for the oceans beyond State-controlled waters. This is comparable to “outer space.” Specific regimes and controls are established in this Law of the Sea Convention that would be used as preceident for the U.S. to conform to similar conventions governing outer space.

    I have discussed this issue here:–un-law-of-the-sea-convention-and-americas-spacefaring-future.aspx.. But, then, I am not a space lawyer. We need to bring in the experts on this question, but it concerns me greatly.

  3. shubber said

    This is comparable to “outer space.”

    It may be comparable, but it is NOT the same. How do you propose whatever international body there is out there is going to retroactively “regulate” all the existing satellite operators out there to make them either (a) pay for the sunshine they are using which is apparently common property of some sort (?) or (b) give freely to all mankind any services they create from such solar-derived power?

    Won’t happen.

  4. Phil Chapman said

    The professor’s argument is of course a statement of the Common Heritage of Mankind Principle (CHOMP) which was embodied in the iniquitous Moon Treaty. The finest achievement of the L5 Society while I was its president in the early 80s (but for which Leigh Ratiner deserves credit, not I) was the defeat of that treaty in the US Senate.

    Whether or not the collectivist whackos are allowed to CHOMP away at the profits from mining the sea-bed, the principle does not apply to space activities. The reason is that the Charter of the UN takes precedence over all treaties (including the Outer Space Treaty and subsequent Agreements and Conventions). Article 73 of the Charter says (emphasis added),

    “Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that THE INTERESTS OF THE INHABITANTS OF THESE TERRITORIES ARE PARAMOUNT, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:
    a. to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses;
    b. TO DEVELOP SELF-GOVERNMENT, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, AND TO ASSIST THEM IN THE PROGRESSIVE DEVELOPMENT OF THEIR FREE POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement;”

    The CHOMP attempts to exploit people in space for the benefit of people back home. That is called colonialism, and it is prohibited by the Charter.

    The clear conclusion is that, once there are people living off Earth (e.g., building solar power satellites), terrestrial nations will have no right to control their actions or to extract taxes or other tribute from them, except insofar as their actions cause actual harm to people on Earth.

    Most of the time, a geosynchronous solar power satellite intercepts sunlight that would otherwise miss the Earth. This obviously does not harm anybody. Near the solstices, the satellite is briefly between the Earth and the Sun near midday at its longitude, so at these times it is actually making an infinitesimal reduction in the heat input to the Earth. The effect is of course entirely negligible, but those worried about Global Warming cannot claim it is a detriment.

  5. Sam Dinkin said

    Outer space property law might not be on your critical path. Like a ship on the sea, a solar power satellite has very good property rights. But, I strongly recommend that you devote a modest amount of resources toward this. If you do need Lunar extraction, or a functioning Lunar economy to make the case for space solar satellites close, property rights will help with development. Compare the agricultural productivity of Venezuela’s new agriculture policy vs. countries with solid property rights. Compare the number of residents of Antarctica (2500) to the number of residents of Alaska eighty years ago (50,000+) which was a similar time after Western discovery.

    The other thing about Lunar property rights and other space property rights is that they should be very cheap to establish. The Lunar exploration intergovernmental coordinating body has yet to do very much. It is in its formative years so that a very small investment (less than $1 million) might rationalize space property rights, default industrial policy and so on.

    Then, if your critical path does take you into territory that you need to own or at least have a long-term lease on in order to get a bank loan, you won’t be held up. I think that while the benefit to space solar is indirect and possibly modest, it might be substantial and move up the time of commercial viability by decades. From a cost benefit perspective, I believe it is the single most cost effective investment that can be made.

    Oklahoma would probably still be barren wasteland if there was no way to own a house there. We need an outer space land office and fee simple real estate out there. Even if the initial purchase price goes to the UN, giving clear title to the land out there may be the critical enabling technology.

    Lunar real estate prices will be a barometer of the progress of transportation cost research and space commercialization potential. It will be an information market. Creating a market for real estate will produce a default industrial policy that will allow a transporter to buy up real estate and harvest rents from transportation technology investments. Think about how Disney bought huge tracts of Florida and California, then developed them and harvested the real estate price rise in addition to all of the revenues from the parks. Think about how much investment was spurred by giving clear title to portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to TV and cell phone companies.

  6. Hu said

    This discussion remin ds me of the Adidas shoes ad:

    “Just do it!”

    And tben followed by an old saw: “It is easier to gain forgiveness than permission.”

  7. Christine said

    It’s my understanding that the possession of military power is 9/10ths of the law. Any country which exhibits a forceful objection under the moon treaty to a space based mining corporation will simply have objects with a large amount of mv dropped on them until they stop whining.

  8. Raymond Neil Cox said

    My view is the UN rarely does anything right and the UN is being ignored by all or most countries when ever it is convenient for the elete. What the boo-hiss lawyers think is almost irrelevent. We can build solar power satelites, and ignore unreasonable requests to share in the profit, and ignore UN court orders unless our corrupt politions choose to side with the UN. Neil

  9. edawg said

    Well the UN is a useless paper tiger that cannot even shoot some horseback riders in Darfur to prevent a genocide. However though, I could see the UN doing something useful and make a no weapons fire zone in earth orbit for the sake of the species. Cuz of orbital debris and junk

  10. Des Emery said

    Coyote – a lot of the comments here are really about ‘politics’ not about ‘government.’ The UN is supposedly non-political, and tries very hard to do difficult things around the world, but is regularly undercut by politics from various Capitals, including Washington. Without the UN, most of us would already be dead from nuclear war, pestilence and starvation. The Law of the Sea is contravened regularly, but is the best model for the Law of Space to be a future consideration in any project involving the utilization and occupation of space.

  11. Edawg said


    Wasn’t the UN created for the purpose of preventing another holocast?How many genocides have happened since the end of ww2?If the UN cannot even enforce its own laws here on earth how are they going to enfore them off-world where a frozen turd can be used as a lethal weapon if put on the right incoming trajectory!?The only other players that this nation needs to worry about(right now) is China, Russia and the EU.The biggest threat to space utilization is a shooting war in earth orbit.

  12. Oldfart53 said

    We face the risk each day that an individual in a position of power will act to block us. He may find his justification in a treaty, the bible, or the voices in his head. The thing to understand about the law is that it is a matter of opinion in which there is a disagreement. Normally, the matter is then settled by a third party, a judge, who strives to make a decision that other judges will agree with. There exists a risk that a judge will find in favor of the professor. But a judge would consider what was taken from the professor and the injury he sustained by the loss versus the transformation of the item into a product that the professor purchases at a reasonable price for the labor involved. A judge could easily interpret that supplying electricity to the public meets the criterion of article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty.

  13. Dillon Pyron said

    One could argue that to share the profits of a venture, one should also be required to share the risks. I’ll be glad to fund the first one at my own expense (assuming I could do that for, say, $1000!), but if you want the benefits of my research and investment, you’ll have to pay me for it. That’s the way it’s been for years. It’s only in the recent past that there has been an international push for ignoring IP protection where it might have some perceived benefit for the country stealing that information. But given the cost of going from concept to reality, most countries are going to have to pay the developers to do the dirty work, too.

  14. Coyote said

    Oldfart 53: The law often baffles me. Space law is even more baffling because it was written before anything of commercial importance could be done in space.

    Dillon Pyron: That is usually how it works, yes.

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