The Pentagon is conducting some early reviews of the potential for using space platforms that can transmit solar energy back to Earth for power generation. The idea is to explore ways to lower energy costs and perhaps even short circuit future resource wars between increasingly energy starved nations.
U.S. military space strategists are vetting the feasibility of projections that as much as 10 percent of
energy needs could be satisfied by space-based solar power (SBSP) as soon as
2050, or perhaps sooner.
Proponents of the concept have proposed that a demonstration project be undertaken
within the next five to seven years.
A mix of advocates, technologists, scientists and
legal and policy experts met here Sept. 6-7 to take
part in a program called Space Based Solar Power – Charting a Course for Sustainable Energy.
The event was sponsored by the United States Air Force Academy’s Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies and the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office.
Energy from space
“I truly believe that space-based solar power will become the first sellable, tradable commodity that’s delivered by space that everybody on the planet can have part of,” said Col.
(Select) Michael Smith, chief of
future concepts in the National Security Space Office and director of the SBSP study.
Achieving that vision will require
a partnership of government, commercial and international organizations, Smith said.
The U.S. Department of Defense has an “absolute urgent need for energy,” Smith said, underscoring the concern that major powers around the world – not just the United States – could end up in a major war of attrition in the 21st century. “We’ve got to make sure that we alleviate the energy concerns around the globe,” he said.
“Energy may well be the first tangible commodity returned from space,” said Joseph Rouge,
director of the National Security Space Office. “Geopolitics in general is going to be a large issue. I don’t think there’s any question that energy is going to be one of the key next issues, along with water.”
moving out on the proposed SBSP effort would be the largest space venture yet, making the Apollo Moon landing project “look like just a small little program.” As a caveat, however, he noted that the U.S. Department of Defense is cash-strapped and
not likely to be the financial backer for such an endeavor.
“But do look to us to help you develop the technologies and developing a lot of the other infrastructure,” Rouge said to meeting attendees during a lunchtime talk. He suggested
seeing SBSP, for instance, as helping to spur a significant reduction in the cost of routine access to space for the
United States and its allies.
There is a compelling
synergy between energy security, space security and national security, said
Col. Michael Hornitschek,
chair of the National Security Space Office Architecture Study on Space Based Solar Power.
Although space-based solar power has been studied since the 1970s – by the Department of Energy, NASA, the European Space Agency
the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency – Hornitschek said
generally has “fallen between the cracks” because no organization is responsible for both space programs and energy security.
Over the last few decades, the march of technology useful to SBSP has been significant, said Neville Marzwell, manager of advanced concepts and technology innovation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif
“We have made tremendous progress in technology from 1977 to 2007,” Marzwell said
. He pointed to advances in micro- and nano-electronics, lightweight inflatable composite structures, ultra-small power management devices, as well as laboratory demonstration of photovoltaic arrays that are close to 68 percent conversion efficiency.
Still, there’s work to be done,
specifically in wireless power beaming, Marzwell said. By modularizing SBSP platforms, the work can start small and foster batch production to keep price per unit costs down while evolving a bigger energy market, he said.
Overall, pushing forward on SBSP “is a complex problem and one that lends itself to a wide variety of competing solutions,” said John Mankins,
president of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions, LLC in Ashburn, V
“There’s a whole range of science and technology challenges to be pursued. New knowledge and new systems concepts are needed in order to enable space-based solar power. But there does not appear, at least at present, that there are any fundamental physical barriers,” Mankins explained.
Peter Teets, Distinguished Chair of the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies, said that SBSP must be economically viable, noting that
those economics probably do not exist
today. “But if we can find a way with continued technology development … and [make] smart moves in terms of development cycles to bring clean energy from space to the Earth, it’s a home run kind of situation,” he told attendees at
“It’s a noble effort,” Teets told Space News. There remain uncertainties in SBSP, including closure on a business case for the idea, he added.
“I think the Air Force has a legitimate stake in starting it. But the scale of this project is going to be enormous. This could create a new agency … who knows? It’s going to take the
president and a lot of political will to go forward with this,” Teets said.
Demonstration via satellite
As current director of the SBSP study for the National Security Space Office, Smith said that demonstrations of beamed energy from space – utilizing both breadboard lab tests and by using space assets – are vital. One possibility is to extrapolate meaningful lessons from signal transmissions by already orbiting communication satellites, he said, be they U.S. assets or experiments done with partners elsewhere around the world.
An orbiting SBSP demonstration spacecraft must be a useful tool, Smith added,
delivering energy while also retiring
science questions and identifying risk areas for next-phase SBSP development. Conceptually, a locale to receive test broadcasts of beamed energy from space could be Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, he noted.
Smith advised that an interim report by the National Security Space Office on space-based solar power would be made available Oct.
10 at the National Press Club in Washington
told Space News that the international space station could also be a venue from which to conduct a whole range of in-space SBSP-related experiments on relevant component technologies or subsystem technologies. “The space station is perfect for that,” he said, perhaps making use of Japan’s still-to-be-lofted experiment module, Kibo, and its Exposed Facility located outside of the pressurized module.
To engage in an open public discussion of space solar power, go to this
Web site sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation: http://spacesolarpower.wordpress.com