By Anne-Sophie Martin – April 2024

Harnessing solar energy from space and transferring it to Earth or using it in lunar exploration is an area of growing interest. A number of missions and studies have been carried out in the last few years by States, space agencies, research centers and private entities to determine whether solar energy transformed into microwaves could be delivered to receiving stations on the Earth’s surface for wide-scale use, and whether it could be used to support future space explorations projects on celestial bodies.

According to the 2005 United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a major assessment of the human impact on the environment, humans have modified significantly and extensively ecosystems in the last decades, mostly to cope with the increasing demand for food, water, and fuel. This has led to a massive and irreversible loss of the biodiversity on Earth, which will substantially reduce the benefits that future generations gain from ecosystems. The solution for inverting the degradation of ecosystems while responding to the rising demand of energy may be possible by exploiting space solar power.

Space solar energy, based on sun’s radiations, is an invaluable renewable energy source that has drawn particular attention due to its potential to address climate change on Earth and reduce environmental impact. The ethical implications of solar energy reside in its potential to promote environmental sustainability in achieving climate justice, tackle issue of environmental injustices associated with fossil fuel extraction, and foster economic development in promoting equitable access to clean energy.

The use of solar energy therefore raises ethical and sustainability issues. The international community should consider a fair distribution of benefits derived from solar energy pursuant to Article I of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which stresses that “the exploration and use of outer space … shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic and scientific development ….” The development of such programs should be based on the necessity to share the benefits of this source of energy for all, considering future generations and environmental issues, in order to support life on Earth and in outer space in the case of exploration missions.

Solar energy might be produced in an ethically sustainable way considering the following elements: (i) responsible sourcing implying that components used in solar infrastructures are obtained without causing harmful damage to the environment. With this in mind, the Working Group (WG) on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities could consider the new challenges that space solar source represents in the development of sustainable and ethical space missions; (ii) environmental effects by minimizing the environmental impact of solar energy production; (iii) social justice by sharing the benefits and ensuring the equitable access to solar power; and (iv) transparency and accountability in the harnessing and distribution of solar source.

By incorporating these aspects into solar energy program, it would be possible to generate and use solar energy in a more ethically sustainable manner on Earth and in outer space. However, the construction, development and operation of such systems imply diverse technical challenges in terms of cost and technology. There is a need for further discussion under the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) and notably within the WG on Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities in the definition of best practices, recommendations and legal framework.  Solar energy remains a promising source of energy to alleviate energy problems on Earth and to contribute to sustainable space exploration.

Pin It on Pinterest