TCS Daily

Space Elevator: Stuck Between Floors

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Last week I mentioned the growing promise of space elevator technology, and I've noticed that interest in the subject continues to grow. (Here's a roundup on developments from National Geographic. And the Times of London even reports that Google has considered investing in space elevator technology.)

But as someone who has a more than casual interest in the subject of space law, it has occurred to me that space elevators raise some potentially knotty legal questions, and that it might serve us well to think about them at some length before they're ready to get off the ground.


These problems stem from the nature of space elevators, and the nature of space law as it exists today. Space elevators don't actually have to be anchored at the equator (in fact, they don't even have to touch ground, really) but pretty much any plausible first-generation designs will work that way. The equator, however, is touchy legal turf where space law is concerned.


The1976 Declaration of Bogota represented an attempt by equatorial countries to lay claim to geostationary orbits which, by their nature, are above the equator. That claim found little purchase, but equatorial countries' positions may change should plans for so-called space elevators (also known as "beanstalks") continue to progress.


If cargoes are to be hauled into space from the equator, equatorial countries will be likely to get a piece of the pie, and the old "where space begins" question will appear once more. Unlike geosynchronous satellites, equatorial countries won't have to invoke international law to get a share of the revenues -- they'll just demand it in exchange for access to the requisite local real estate. There's nothing wrong with that, but it will tend to shift the balance of power, and put a premium on political stability, something not to be taken for granted in many countries along the equator.


There's also the question of what legal status applies to space elevators. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and such related agreements as the Registration and Liability Conventions, speak of "launches" and of "launching states" and tend to presume -- reasonably enough, under old technology -- that anything in outer space has been, well, launched. A space elevator, on the other hand, is simply an extension of the Earth's surface and would seem in the absence of some agreement to the contrary to possess the legal characteristic of whatever its bottom end is attached to.


Basically, it's just a really tall tower. The Outer Space Treaty didn't envision anything like that.


Objects that depart the elevator into Earth orbit may be regarded as having been "launched," but the elevator itself would not seem to fit that description. That means that it arguably would not count as a "space object" at all, for though that term is left suitably ambiguous in the treaties, it's easy to imagine an argument that an object that has not been launched cannot be a space object. I'm inclined to disagree, and to think that any object that is in space is a space object, but the matter is not beyond doubt. Among other things, this might mean that the Outer Space Treaty's prohibition against placing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit might not apply. Of course, in a sense the elevator "orbits" the Earth even though it remains stationary with regard to the Earth's surface (that's what geosynchronous satellites do, after all) but it certainly offers wiggle-room for anyone looking for it.


These are the sorts of questions that legal scholars -- and, perhaps, folks in the general counsel's office at Google -- will have to look at in coming years. Although I doubt that they'll serve as major barriers to development, they're certainly legal underbrush that needs to be cleared.


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