In the late 1960s, enterprising scientist Peter Glaser proposed using orbiting satellites to collect incoming solar radiation, transform it into microwaves, and beam it down to focused receivers on Earth where it would be converted into electricity.
Although space-based solar power (SBSP) sounds like science fiction, scientists and engineers have explored developing the futuristic technology for decades but repeatedly came to the same conclusion: SBSP is likely technologically possible but for it to be feasible, launch costs will have to come down considerably. Now that companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab have demonstrated re-use capabilities and launch costs are plummeting, it is time to think seriously and boldly about the development of SBSP.
It is difficult to overstate the benefits of SBSP. For one, it could eventually provide inexhaustible clean energy to civilians because SBSP produces no harmful byproducts and uses solar radiation as its fuel. The United States could also use SBSP to create a dynamic national energy system modeled after the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. If the United States had a national SBSP constellation when Texas experienced widespread outages in February, the federal government could have supplied emergency power to civilians instantly. Scientists and engineers have even proposed using SBSP to power lunar exploration and resource extraction operations in the moon’s permanently shaded regions (PSRs), where traditional solar power would be impossible to utilize.
SBSP has enormous military uses as well. The military could use SBSP to power remote bases instead of using dangerous fuel convoys that cost up to hundreds of dollars per gallon. SBSP could also theoretically be used to power unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), allowing them to stay in the air until their components fail. Removing energy as a limiting factor in military operations stands to radically change conventional military doctrine.
In recognition of the vast potential of SBSP, nations around the world have begun heavily investing in the potentially transformative technology. Japan enacted legislation in 2009 that requires its government to research SBSP and plans to build a 1 GW system in the 2030s. The European Union and India have also begun considering SBSP as a potential power system for the future. No country, though, has approached China’s interest and level of investment. China has built the world’s first SBSP base plant and plans to build a 100 kW satellite in LEO by 2025, a 1 mW satellite in GEO by 2035, and a full, commercial satellite in 2050.
Since SBSP could be a transformative technology, it is reasonable to ask why the United States is not investing heavily in SBSP. In fairness, the United States has launched a few research projects like the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Lectenna, Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module (PRAM), and Power Transmitted Over Laser (PTROL) experiments. The Department of Defense also launched a 100 million dollar partnership with Northrop Grumman on Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR), which aims to launch an SBSP demonstration spacecraft called Arachne in 2024. Still, though, the United States lacks a clear plan for SBSP and is dangerously at risk of falling behind its competitors.
To position itself well for the future, the United States should begin treating space-based solar power like the groundbreaking technology that it could be. The government could start by naming a point organization to coordinate and lead SBSP research. Naming a lead organization will give SBSP a congressional “cheerleader” to attract federal funding while also clarifying domestic and international regulatory responsibilities.
The United States should also engage the private sector by subsidizing research and development of SBSP. As it stands, SBSP is likely viewed as too risky for robust private investment, but if the government shouldered some of the cost, as it does with other forms of green energy, the private sector might be more willing to develop SBSP capabilities.
Lastly, the government should fund a full-scale technology demonstration of SBSP. There are still some hefty technological obstacles like thermal issues related to building at scale and inexperience with space construction that remain. Launching a concerted, public research and development program under the auspices of a selected point organization could spark private sector interest while mitigating the remaining technological challenges.
As the United States approaches the middle of the 21st century, it must think audaciously and strategically about the future. Taking steps to bring SBSP out of science fiction and into reality would be a bold and necessary move to ensure the country is prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.
Spencer Kaplan is a recent Duke University graduate who interned with the CSIS Aerospace Project and Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. His views do not necessarily reflect those of CSIS or the Potomac Institute.
This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.