Pentagon Considering Study on Space-Based Solar Power

The Pentagon's National Security Space Office (NSSO) may begin a study in the near future on the possibility of using satellites to collect solar energy for use on Earth, according to Defense Department officials.

The officials said the study does not mean that the military plans to demonstrate or deploy a space-based solar power constellation. However, as the Pentagon looks at a variety of alternative energy sources, this could be one possible method of supplying energy to troops in bases or on the battlefield, they said.

The military's work in this area also could aid development of a system that could provide energy to non-military users as well, according to Lt. Col. Michael Hornitschek, chief of rated force policy on the Air Force staff at the Pentagon.

Hornitschek, who has been exploring the concept of space-based solar power in his spare time, recently briefed the NSSO on the concept of space-based solar power, and stimulated interest in conducting a formal study, according to Lt. Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith, chief of future concepts at the NSSO. The NSSO would need to find the financial resources and available manpower to conduct the study, Smith said.

Hornitschek would lead work on the study on behalf of the NSSO if the NSSO elects to pursue it, and he said he hopes that a system could be deployed in roughly 20 years.

John Mankins, president of the Space Solar Power Association in Washington, said space-based solar power could offer a massive improvement over terrestrial solar collection devices because constant exposure to the sun avoids the nighttime periods where terrestrial systems cannot collect solar energy.

The ability to constantly gather solar energy would allow a space-based system to avoid safety concerns to other satellites or people on the ground by constantly transmitting energy to Earth at a level that is high enough to be useful but low enough so as not to cause any damage, said Mankins, a former NASA official who previously served as manager of advanced concept studies at NASA headquarters before leaving the agency in 2005.

Jeff Kueter, president of the Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank, said it is too early to determine if space-based solar power is viable, but said that if the concept is successful, it could be a potential "game changer" for energy use.

The concept could find broad bipartisan support as it could meet the desires both of conservatives seeking to end dependence on foreign energy sources, as well as liberals who are looking for an environmentally friendly source of energy, Kueter said.

While space-based solar power may sound like a high-risk proposal, it is worth investing several million dollars in the near term to study the concept because of the potential high payoff, Kueter said. If the studies indicated that the concept might be feasible, it would be worthwhile for the Pentagon to conduct flight demonstrations to prove out the technology in space, he said.

If the Pentagon chose to pursue flight demonstrations or deployment of a space-based solar power system, it could share costs by partnering with NASA, the Department of Energy and other government agencies, Kueter said.

The concept of space-based solar power might appear to threaten traditional energy industries, Kueter said. However, the rapidly increasing demands for energy and diminishing supply of natural resources means that traditional energy companies may need to find new ways of doing business in the future, and they could likely find a way to be a part of the space-based solar power effort through ways like contributing expertise in areas like energy distribution, he said.

The NSSO would likely ask experts from industries like electrical power to be involved in the study if it chooses to conduct it to draw on their experience with power distribution, Smith said.

If the NSSO initiates the study on space-based solar power, it would likely be the first time that the Pentagon has looked at the concept, Hornitschek said.

Smith said he hoped the study could create a repository of information about space-based solar power that may have been conducted by other agencies, as well as any that may have existed within the military.

Hornitschek said it is too early to estimate the likely constellation size, types of orbits or cost of a space-based solar-power constellation. However, the satellites would likely feature very large, powerful solar arrays. In addition, the cost of launching a constellation of such large satellites with the types of launch vehicles available today would be a challenge, Hornitschek said.

Mankins said a large constellation could demonstrate a significant launch opportunity to industry, and could provide the stimulus needed for industry to bring reusable launch concepts to fruition.

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Contributing Writer

Jeremy Singer is a former journalist who specialized in stories about technology, including cybersecurity, medical devices, big data, drones, aerospace and defense. He now works as head of communications at Morse Corp, a company that creates  algorithm development, software development and system integration services to solve issues in the aerospace industry.