Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Star Trek and Space Law

Star Trek recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and to mark the occasion, Astrosociological Insights have published an issue containing articles linked to that famous science fiction television series.

My research into Space Law, in particular the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM), indicated to me that there is a definite thematic similarity to the well known Prime Directive, the familiar regulation from Star Fleet that seems to only observed in the breach. As a result, I've written an article that looks at these links and I was delighted that this ws included in the Star Trek themed edition of Astrosociological Insights, which is available here:


My article starts on page 8.  If you have any comments about this, do let me know.  Comparing the two has proved to be a useful and humorous way of understanding the CHM, which is not always the most direct of principles to grasp.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Luna and the Law of Property

The attention that Space Law has been receiving shows no sign of diminishing.  I was recently pointed to an excellent article looking at this, entitled "The peaks of eternal light: A near-term property issue on the moon", written by by Martin Elvis, Tony Milligan and Alanna Krolikowski.  I ought to mention that Tony is a friend of mine through the British Interplanetary Society and I greatly admire his profound and learned approach to these issues.

I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.  The article describes regions of Luna, the Moon, that constantly, or almost constantly, receive permanent sunlight due to the relatively small tilt of our sibling world compared to the ecliptic.  These points have been given the poetic and entirely suitable name of the Peaks of Eternal Light and they have the potential to be valuable territories as an installation on them, near the north and south lunar poles, will receive solar energy effectively all the time.

I was further intrigued by their reference to the Outer Space Treaty ("OST"). As many will know, the OST makes it clear that nation states cannot appropriate, or own, territories on Luna or elsewhere in outer space. According to Article II of the OST, nation states cannot make any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by another means.  It is immediately clear to a practising lawyer that this is a total prohibition of any claim to own part of the surface of Luna.  Prohibiting a claim of sovereignty by use or occupation means that landing on or building on part of the surface does not entitle you to make a claim for ownership just because of those facts. In English law, for example, this would prevent a claim for "squatters' rights" based on factual occupation of land.

The authors go on to refer to Art XII of the OST, which states that:

"All stations, installations, equipment and space vehicles on the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be open to representatives of other States Parties to the Treaty on a basis of reciprocity. Such representatives shall give reasonable advance notice of a projected visit, in order that appropriate consultations may be held and that maximum precautions may be taken to assure safety and to avoid interference with normal operations in the facility to be visited."

The authors seek to use this provision to propose that a "loophole" or ambiguity can be implied that weakens or even avoids the total prohibition on any claim to sovereignty set out in Art II.  In brief, the requirement that those seeking entry to a base need to give notice before doing so and cannot interfere with the installation's normal operations suggests to the authors that the owner of a base has some form of right or claim to the area their base occupies as a result. So, for example, this might be used by the creators of a site at the Peaks of Eternal Light to suggest that they have some form of property right to the valuable territory that they occupy.

The OST seeks to encourage the exploration and use of Luna and other parts of outer space, as is made clear by Art I, as long as this for peaceful purposes.  Nothing in the OST seeks to prevent or discourage peaceful installations, bases or buildings on Luna or elsewhere.  Indeed, Art XII itself envisages just this sort of activity.  One of the themes of the OST is that exploration and use of Luna, for example, is to be on the basis of peaceful co-operation between the nation states and their citizens.

When I read Art XII, as a practising lawyer it immediately reminded me of clauses in land law and especially those relating to landlord and tenant.  You may build on the Moon, it suggests, but anyone else can at any time request permission to enter your building.  From time to time I have given talks on the Outer Space Treaty and I always refer to Art XII as a practical demonstration of the total lack of any property rights  of anyone building on Luna.  Think of your home being subject to a law that anyone else, no matter who, could at any time demand entry to your home.  I mention this in the context of how unattractive the position is for those seeking to commence an industrial or commercial operation on Luna, involving perhaps mining its resources.  In real terms, your ability to keep such an operation secretive to some degree is restricted by this point.

Art XII reminds me of typical provisions in a lease particularly because of the important qualification given to this right of entry, which the authors seek to suggest might provide the basis for "quasi-property" rights.  Such rights of entry are almost always, except in emergencies, subject to reasonable advanced notice and this is generally for the purposes of expediency, so as to avoid unnecessary difficulties and awkwardness. Turning up seemingly at random and demanding instant entry would be an easy way to create hostility and argument and so unsurprisingly such clauses require the person seeking entry to give reasonable advance notice.

Art XII adds to this requirement for advanced notice by stating that this is so consultations may take place and precautions may be taken to assure safety and to avoid interference in normal operations.  These additional qualifications further illustrate this point; they are there so that the occupier of a base (for example) must allow entry to other parties if they so require but there ability to do so must be managed in such a way as to avoid confrontation and inconvenience. It seems the length of notice that is reasonable can vary according to circumstances. For example, a complex and potentially dangerous industrial process at a base could lead to a longer period of notice prior to entry than say an innocuous astronomical station.  Far from giving the occupier of a base any sort of claim to property rights, these qualifications on the right to entry merely seek to ensure that it is exercised in a way that helps to fulfil the broader aims of the OST in peaceful co-operation between space explorers and users.

Ultimately, the occupiers of a base on the surface of Luna would not be able to rely on these provisions to prevent someone else entering their premises completely as at some point, no matter what the circumstances, a reasonable period of notice will expire.

The requirement to give notice before entry does not, by itself, qualify or weaken the total prohibition of any claim to sovereignty set out in Art II OST.  Against Art II's total prohibition on property rights of any sort, the requirement to give notice in my view simply fails to provide a firm, or indeed any, basis  for any claim or right that can be founded in law.

Of course in reality the creator of such an installation or base may assert their claim in practical terms based purely on their occupation and this might have a great deal of force to it, especially while the surface of Luna remains largely unclaimed.  Yet this would not be a legal argument.  There would be no basis for such a claim in the OST or Space Law more generally.  Any attempt to maintain occupancy or control of an area would have to involve the use of non-legal means, which would presumably start with simply refusing to allow anyone else any form of access.

The authors seek to partially ground their submissions in a broader jurisprudential theory often associated with Ronald Dworkin.  If there are seeming lacunae in the law, this theory suggests, a Judge can utilise broader social and cultural norms to consider the point in more detail. If a Judge has perfect wisdom based on a perfect understanding of all cultural, social and other norms, such an imaginary champion being referred to as Judge Hercules, they will undoubtedly arrive at the perfect answer to any legal problem even if the primary legislation being considered seems ambiguous.   In reality, actual human Judges may not arrive at the same answer as Judge Hercules, or even each other (as is often the case), but there is at least the principle that there is a perfect answer to each legal question.

This attractive and comforting theory has some practical underpinning in the noted principle that Judges (at least in the jurisdiction of England and Wales) are expected to arrive at a judgement on a legal dispute even if the law or evidence or both have unsatisfactory elements, such as gaps in the primary law being considered.

Yet this does not mean that Judge Hercules can therefore be expected to make the law up in the absence of legislation.  A Judge seeking to resolve a dispute about access to the Peaks of Eternal Light would have to, at some point, note that the regime of the OST only goes so far and then stops.  From the perspective of someone seeking to exercise property rights over the surface of Luna , the law states that they do not have any and the Judge cannot go any further than that.

The authors speculate that the Chinese government could commence a mission that would conclude with a site being installed at one of the Peaks of Eternal Light and might then seek to rely on the OST in the way they propose to exclude anyone else from this territory.

To bring matters to a head, let us say I form a company registered in the jurisdiction of England and Wales and I then obtain the appropriate license from the UK government in accordance with the Outer Space Act 1986  to carry out operations in outer space.  I decide that this company is to land a human mission near the Peaks of Eternal Light and then seek access to the Chinese base in accordance with Art XII.

If, for whatever reason, the Chinese government refute my request after a reasonable period of notice has expirerd, I would have to communicate my displeasure to them and, to take matters further, I might have to apply through the Chinese Courts for some form of a declaration and injunction that the Chinese government must comply with its international obligations under the OST.    If this was unsuccessful my ultimate recourse would be through the Legal Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at the United Nations.   Whatever the course or outcome of these proceedings, it is important to note that at no time has the Chinese government, the UK government or my company gained any sort of ownership or rights over extraterrestrial territory.  In this example, the Chinese government have not gained any legal rights; they have simply refused to allow me to exercise my legal right of entry.

What is the way forward, given that the OST and the current Space Law regime more generally does not provide any particular mechanism for considering these issues?  In looking into this, I have been researching the law of the sea bed.  Here, the International Seabed Authority ("ISA") manages the exploration and exploitation of the deep sea bed. This was created by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also known as the Law of the Sea Convention.

The exploitation of the mineral resources in polymetallic nodules to be found on the sea bed is a key area that is managed by ISA.  ISA licenses operatives from convention countries to carry out these sorts of operations and emphasis is placed on environmental mitigation.  ISA has its own enterprise organisation to carry out such exploitation as well, although in practice it has yet to carry out substantial work in this area.  Though the ISA and its activities are certainly not free from controversy, it does provide a practical example of how the exploitation of Luna, along with outer space more generally, might proceed.

Given the complexities in this area, the authors of the article are keen to qualify their conclusions about the law and those interested in this field will value this detailed examination.  If the resources of space are to be utilised, it will be interesting to see how the legal regime develops to manage these activities.

Those interested in reading about these issues further may be interested in this article from the Space Review on a legal regime for the Peaks of Eternal Light: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2423/1

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Astrosociological Insights

I was delighted to be asked to contribute to Astrosociological Insights, the newsletter of the Astrosociological Research Institute, recently. The link at the bottom of this article takes you to a pdf edition of their latest newsletter and my article on Space Law starts on page eight.  The research carried out for this article was part of my work for the study group for the British Interplanetary Society on space settlement.

Astrosociology is according to the ARI a relatively new field, and is defined by them as the study of astrosocial phenomena (i.e., the social, cultural, and behavioural patterns related to outer space). The study of Space Law clearly has a home within this area of research.

This particular edition of Astrosociological Insights focusses on space settlement and my article is entitled, "Competing Future Visions for the Human Expansion into Space as Regularized by Space Law". It is an examination of how recent American legislation, and the attention given to it, compares to the background of Space Law concerned with the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources.  This edition of the newsletter commences with an article from George Zamka, NASA astronaut and veteran of two Space Shuttle missions, on a return to the Moon and also includes an article from the wonderful Al Globus on the minimum size needed for an early space habitat. With other articles on the role of politics and the arts in space settlement, I am very flattered to be included.

An excerpt

To read this newsletter please use this link: http://www.astrosociology.org/library/pdf/newsletters/ARI-Newsletter_Vol-5_iss-1_05-2016.pdf

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A visit to the British Interplanetary Society

A video scrapbook of bits and pieces from a visit to the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) in early 2016. My visit was to take part in a conference for the SPACE Project, a study group within BIS re-examining the space colonies studies from the 1970s.

For more information about the British Interplanetary Society, please look at http://www.bis-space.com/

Monday, 2 May 2016

Island Zero Alpha - an animation

Island Zero Alpha is an original space habitat design from the study group on space settlement within the British Interplanetary Society. Assembled and stationed in low Earth orbit, it is 115 metres in radius.  The ring of habitat modules rotates at 2 rpm and this produces a pseudo-gravity of around 0.5g on the floor of the modules.

The idea behind Island Zero Alpha is to move up to larger habitats than the International Space Station and to learn more about the effects of pseudo-gravity on humans in space. The station is expected to have a crew of around fifteen to twenty.

The spiral tunnels leading from the central hub to the habitat modules on the ring are to ensure a graduated transfer from 0g to 0.5g in the habitat modules.  The ring running round the habitat is primarily for emergency access. Please watch in HD if possible.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Space Law Roundtable - the SPACE Act 2015

I was delighted to take part recently in a discussion about Space Law as it applies to space resources and settlement for the Voices from L5 podcast.

With me were PJ Blount and Christopher Newman, both authorities on the legal aspects of space development.  We discussed the recent American legislation referred to as the SPACE Act 2015 and then talked more speculatively about the possible nature of a constitution for a space habitat.

Voices from L5 is brought to you with the assistance of the National Space Society.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Space Station Zero Alpha - the computer game!

As a bit of fun, I've been undertaking a wonderful online course on computer science called CS 50.  The first project involves creating a program in Scratch, a language designed for beginners in computer programming that does a lot of the work for you.

Looking for inspiration, I decided to create an updated version of an old computer game I created back in the eighties, during the home computer craze, called Space Station Alpha.  This was a game written in under 16K for the ZX Spectrum.

This new version is a lot faster and I really wish I had these sorts of facilities when I was a teenager! I've used the graphics from current work on my space settlement film. It's a very simple game. The player is in charge of the defences of Space Station Zero Alpha, the last space station left to protect Earth (or Sol III as it's called in the game).  You have to blast the invading Centaurian Space Destroyers before they either destroy your station or dock with it and invade.

As this is a revamp of a home computer game that was previously written in Sinclair BASIC, you of course have to use keys to play the game, in this case as follows:

Q - Up
A - Down
I - Left
P - Right

If your damage goes over 100% or the Centaurian Space Destroyer reaches the docking port, you've lost. You have to survive twenty waves of invaders to win. Good luck and let's hope you save Sol III!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Case for Space Solar Power

By John C. Mankins

Book review by Adam Manning

Space Solar Power (SSP) has always seemed a tantalisingly attractive concept; harnessing some of the enormous and endless power of the Sun that comes our way and putting it to work here at home.  The basic structure consists of large solar power stations in space that receive energy directly from the sun’s rays. This energy is then converted into a form that can be transmitted through the Earth’s atmosphere to receiving stations on the ground and then distributed for use across the power grid.  If implemented, SSP could have enormous implications for energy use, for technology and for our geo-political relationships that are driven by the powerful influence of our petroleum based economy.

The Case for Space Solar Power is a timely update on SSP with a detailed review of its origin and development, a new proposal for possible implementation and a look at its overall feasibility.  The author had a long career with NASA, including ten years as the manager of its Advanced Concept Studies, and is recognised as a leading figure in SSP.

John C. Mankins

In the 1970s SSP became linked closely with large scale plans for space settlement put forward by Dr Gerard O’Neill and one of the themes of this book is that this wasn't, in retrospect, helpful to the development of SSP research.  The initial conceptions of SSP were very large scale projects, with references to stations, usually positioned in geostationary orbit, several miles in diameter and involving hundreds of launches to establish the necessary hardware in space.

When plans of this scale were produced in the late 1970s, their enormity made them an immediate target for rejection and even ridicule.  In his book, Mankins puts this forward as one of the reasons why SSP has never been taken as seriously as it should be, despite its obvious logical attractiveness. This history of almost scorn has perhaps held back research on the technical issues that need examining if a practical project is to be implemented.

The Case for Space Solar Power puts forward a detailed account of a new proposal for SSP – the SPS – ALPHA.  A beautiful design, it takes older suggestions and updates them for the 21st century. Using a high degree of modularity and the latest in robotics, it is still a very large scale project but the use of modern engineering techniques reduces the eye watering costs of earlier proposals.  It is the discussion of the costs involved that takes us to the heart of the SSP issue.  It is widely accepted that SSP does not involve any major technological breakthroughs in the same way that fusion power does.  Yet the argument has always centred on whether, given the enormous costs of the full implementing SSP, would it be worth it.  Would the huge expenditure involved ever be paid for by the sale of the energy SSP would produce?

Mankins admirably takes into account not just the SSP system itself but also analyses the costs of the huge number of launches that such a system would require. Launch capacity is an important issue for SSP and The Case for Space Solar Power considers future reusable launch vehicles and the role they would play in transferring the SPS – ALPHA system to GEO.

I’m not going to reveal the author’s overall conclusions – please read the book for that! The book reinforced my view that more basic research into wireless power transmission needs to be carried out as this will help make the answers to these issues clearer and The Case for Space Solar Power does provide details of recent studies on this, especially those carried out in Japan.

In the original plans from the 1970s, SSP and the huge space habitats proposed by Dr O’Neill formed an almost parasitical relationship with each other – the one justifying the existence of the other.  The more modern view set out in The Case for Space Solar Power suggests this is no longer valid and SSP can be independent of any large scale space settlement, although it is likely that a much more substantial orbital infrastructure will have to arise as a result of the construction of a project the size of SPS - ALPHA.  If proponents of O’Neillian scale space habitats are justifying them with the benefits of SSP, Mankins’ book does not provide a clear foundation for that justification. Nevertheless, Mankins’ vision is of a much greater extension of human activity into space, with SSP playing an important role.

A particularly useful element of the book is a consideration of how SSP might fit with other means of energy production, especially fitting with renewable energy and the markets that might have a use for it. This more practical approach is to be welcomed after the long period of only viewing it in global energy terms.

On a more global scale though Mankins notes how SSP could play an important role in a system of energy production that seeks to mitigate global climate change. If SSP could fulfil this function, there is an urgent need to investigate it in more detail with a view to its practical implementation.

This readable and well set out book is to be greatly welcomed as an update of the concept and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the subject.

You can find it on Amazon (in both hardback and kindle) here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Case-Space-Solar-Power/dp/099133700X/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1447596309&sr=1-1 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Bolas Space Station - an animation

A short animation depicting a small space station in Low Earth Orbit. The station features a centrifuge, in this case a rotating arm, and on the end of each arm is a habitat module.  The arm rotates at 2.5 revolutions per minute and the artificial gravity produced by this rotation on the floor of each of the modules is around 0.35g, roughly the same as the surface gravity of Mars.

Also seen is the Epsilon reusable spaceplane, in its unmanned configuration, to resupply the station.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Reflections on Space Based Solar Power

by Adam Manning

Generating power for Earth from the enormous and constant outpouring of energy in space from the Sun has long been a dream.  Solar energy from space has been looked on longingly as a way of benignly solving our world’s ever increasing demand for power and moving civilization on from its dependence on fossil fuels.

These ideas received a great deal of attention in the 1970s with studies by Dr Gerard O’Neill and his colleagues when they set out plans for the colonisation of space.  Solar energy from space envisages satellites in Earth orbit collecting energy from the Sun using solar panels.  This energy is then converted into a different form, normally microwave transmission or laser beam, and this is transmitted directly down to a receiving station on the surface of the Earth.

Proponents of the idea point to a number of advantages compared to obtaining solar energy from conventional solar panels on the surface of Earth. The Sun’s rays are weakened as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere on their way to the surface whereas in space, there is no atmosphere and so no reduction of this sort applies. Solar energy here on Earth is subject to the vagaries of the weather as when it is cloudy the Sun’s rays provide less energy.  In space, the Sun’s energy is constant as there are no clouds.  Of course when it is night at a particular point on the Earth’s surface, there is no solar energy at all!   By contrast, if the orbit of the satellite is high enough it can receive and transmit energy derived from the Sun nearly continuously.  This avoids the need for batteries to store energy that normal solar energy entails so that a continuous supply of energy can be produced for consumers.  A typical space based solar power operation of this sort is expected to provide about the same power as an average nuclear power station.

A Space Based Solar Power Satellite demonstration experiment

Space based solar energy has been seen as a way to cost effectively solve the energy crisis of the late twentieth century and more recently as a way to provide our civilization with the huge amount of energy it will need in the future without compromising efforts to tackle global climate change.  These advantages and hopes for solar energy from space help explain why it is an idea that is revived from time to time with new studies and proposals.

Plans for Space Based Solar Power have also played another role. At the time of the original studies on space habitats in the 1970s, Dr Gerard O’Neill and his colleagues put forward plans for Space Solar Power Satellites as the main reason, at least initially, for the construction of the huge space habitats he and his colleagues proposed.  The main purpose for the construction of the Island One space habitat, with a population of 10,000 or so, was to provide living space for the large number of workers that would be needed to construct the satellites.

This was due to the breathtaking size of these solar power satellites, which would have dwarfed, for example, the International Space Station.  To ensure that the solar panels on the satellites could obtain enough energy from sunlight to provide the power needed to justify the whole operation, the satellites were expected to be at least a kilometre across and often much larger than that.  In the 1970s, there was no other way to realistically envisage an installation of this size being constructed without large numbers of workers being involved.  They would need a place to live while this was being carried out in space and so a large space habitat was required.  The initial space habitats and solar power satellites took on an almost circular logic, the one justifying the existence of the other.

It is now roughly forty years since the studies by Dr O’Neill and his colleagues and so the question arises, what has changed since? Sadly, space habitats of the size of Island One have yet to be built and there have never been any experiments concerning space based solar power for Earth in space, let alone the construction of the sizeable satellites that an operational energy scheme would necessitate. Why not?

In reviewing the history of solar power from space, one of the most striking developments has been the much wider use of solar energy on the ground accompanied by a parallel drop in its costs.  Solar energy was relatively undeveloped in the 1970s and forty years of development have made it far more widespread and mainstream.  Solar panels on the roofs of residential homes are now a familiar sight and large solar farms have been constructed to harness more of the Sun’s energy.

One of the key points made in the 1970s studies is that solar energy from space would ultimately be cheap compared to existing energy sources including the then rocketing price of oil, particularly once the enormous infrastructure to generate it was in place.  Studies of energy prices in the mid 2010s suggest that this is not the case at present.  Oil prices are not as prohibitively expensive as originally foreseen and the cost of solar energy on the ground is much lower than expected.  These points already counter an argument for solar power from space based on higher energy costs on Earth compared to solar energy from space.  If solar energy from space is not markedly cheaper, why bother?

On this point on costs efficiency it is also important to consider launch costs. The 1970s studies looked forward to launch costs reducing steadily in the future and placed reliance on the space shuttle programme (with descendant programmes developing shuttle technologies) as a major part of this progression.  Launch costs have not reduced as substantially as hoped or planned and sending equipment or personnel into space is still very expensive.  This is important as a mature space based solar power operation will require a very large number of launches to place the equipment necessary for construction in orbit.  This expenditure is exacerbated by the need to ensure the satellite is ultimately functional at geostationary orbit, some 36,000 km from Earth’s surface. 

When these huge launch costs are taken into account, solar power from space looks even less cost effective.  The point has been made that these costs could be reduced by using materials in space, such as on the Moon’s surface or from near Earth asteroids.  This suggestion may have merit but it has to be borne in mind that techniques and technologies for the utilisation of such resources have yet to be fully developed and put into practice and this in itself will be very costly. 

Construction costs might, theoretically, be cheaper now than envisaged in the 1970s due to advances in robotics.  Speculatively, it is possible to imagine that robotics can be used to quicken and cheapen construction of the space solar satellites rather than the armies of workers proposed in the original studies. As with using space resources to construct the satellites though this point has a large degree of uncertainty and developing such advanced robotic techniques will entail a great deal of costs by itself.  It also abandons one of the main justifications for the construction of the Island One space habitat.

A further point to be considered is the effectiveness of the transmission of power from a space solar power satellite to a receiving station on Earth.  These is perhaps less experimental evidence on this as might be hoped considering the four decades that have elapsed from the original studies.  The clearest guidance on this point suggests that the microwave transmission from a solar power satellite would transmit around three times as much power to its receiving station on the Earth’s surface than an equivalently sized bank of conventional photovoltaic solar panels would be able to generate, assuming they were placed on a part of the Earth’s surface that is suitable for solar energy production. 

The practical problem that proponents of space based solar power face is that it would be much cheaper, easier and quicker to build a solar power facility (or farm as they are referred to) with conventional ground based panels that was three times the size of this receiving station.  The same amount of energy would then be produced for much less cost, technical difficulty and time.  This saving on cost would allow the use of the batteries that are needed to ensure that solar energy provides a constant supply of electricity in the case of bad weather, for example.  An alternative policy might be to build three solar farms in different areas to provide the same power as the satellite for much less cost and time.

Elon Musk is a noted entrepreneur and billionaire with large businesses involved in both space development and solar energy and if anyone were to be a powerful supporter of space based solar energy, it ought to be him. Yet he has, very clearly, set out his view that space based solar energy has no useful advantage over conventional solar panels on the surface of Earth for these reasons. 

Space based solar power (SBSP) does have many supporters despite these points.  In particular, JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) has carried out useful experiments on the transmission of energy using technology suitable for SBSP in which energy was transferred over a distance of 500 metres.  One result from this was showing how the energy could be accurately directed to ensure it was received effectively.

Japan has in recent years shown particular interest in SBSP in part due to the earthquake of 2011 and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  In moving away from nuclear power and with a country with relatively little fossil fuel resources, SBSP must appear an attractive alternative to investigate. China has shown a similar interest. With its huge population coupled with an increasing standard of living, China’s energy needs in the future will be enormous.  If SBSP could provide a way to satisfy this need without burning fossil fuels, it could be an ideal solution. 

NASA has always had supporters of the concept and from time to time various experiments in this area are proposed, including those involving the International Space Station. The Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology program proposed an ambitious timetable for work in this field. 

The US Army War College has also investigated the concept. Whilst noting the attractions and possible advantages of SBSP, they noted that much of the technology required has yet to be sufficiently proven to fully understand the costs and challenges involved.  Their report accepts that whilst the main theories concerning the operation of SBSP are plausible, since its earliest days it has always seemed that around ten years of work is needed to ensure the finer practical points are established to get to a position where such a system could be constructed. 

Likening it to research into fusion, of which there seems to be rather more experimental work, the US Army War College concluded, like Elon Musk, that at present there was no reason to think it provided any great advantage over conventional ground based solar energy.  Interestingly, their report does indicate it might have some use for the military in war zones where they have substantial energy needs without being able to rely on conventional power stations, which are either not present or have been destroyed.

At present there seems to be a clear difference of opinion between proponents of the concept, who often set SBSP within a broader context of the development of space and its long term settlement, and detractors who, whilst freely admiring it and its attractions, conclude that there is no clear, practical advantage to SBSP as matters stand. 

In this context the most prudent way to proceed is with more experiments so that a clearer understanding of the practical issues involved can be acquired.  The ideal here of course would be experiments involving the transmission of power from the International Space Station to a receiving station on Earth. This body of data may support useful, alternative applications along the way. 

If as we hope space development continues to progress, including commercial activities, it maybe that the breathtaking costs involved in the SBSP infrastructure will seem less insurmountable in future than they do at present.  This might be the case if Skylon proves to be successful in reducing the costs of access to space. Ultimately SBSP may be useful in providing power to settlements on the Moon or habitats in space itself, such as the Island One, where the absorbing qualities of the atmosphere are not present.

While we have seen reasons why SBSP, despite its initial promise, has never launched off the pages of academic papers and out into orbit, there is still much to learn.  In a world seeking to divest itself of its addiction to fossil fuels, it must be right to investigate it further, despite these present difficulties, in case it may one day unlock for us the effectively endless and constant energy pouring out of the Sun.