Solar Power From Space: A Better Strategy for America and the World?
This giant disk floating in space isn't a UFO. It's a power generator, harvesting energy from the Sun for a variety of uses back on Earth. Such space-based solar power generators have many applications, not just on Earth, but also in space.
Credit: NASA/MSFC.

Suppose I told you that we could build an energy source that:

  • unlike oil, does not generate profits used to support Al Qaeda and dictatorial regimes.
  • unlike nuclear, does not provide cover for rogue nations to hide development of nuclear weapons.
  • unlike terrestrial solar and wind, is available 24/7 in huge quantities.
  • unlike oil, gas, ethanol and coal, does not emit greenhouse gasses, warming our planet and causing severe problems.
  • unlike nuclear, does not provide tremendous opportunities for terrorists.
  • unlike coal and nuclear, does not require ripping up the Earth.
  • unlike oil, does not lead us to send hundreds of thousands of our finest men and women to war and spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on a military presence in the Persian Gulf.

The basic idea: build huge satellites in Earth orbit to gather sunlight, convert it to electricity, and beam the energy to Earth using microwaves. We know we can do it, most satellites are powered by solar energy today and microwave beaming of energy has been demonstrated with very high efficiency. We're talking about SSP - solar satellite power.

SSP is environmentally friendly in the extreme. The microwave beams will heat the atmosphere slightly and the frequency must be chosen to avoid cooking birds, but SSP has no emissions of any kind, and that's not all. Even terrestrial solar and wind require mining all their materials on Earth, not so SSP. The satellites can be built from lunar materials so only the materials for the receiving antennas (rectennas) need be mined on Earth. SSP is probably the most environmentally benign possible large-scale energy source for Earth, there is far more than enough for everyone, and the sun's energy will last for billions of years.

While help is always nice, the U.S. can build and operate SSP alone, and SSP is nearly useless to terrorists. The satellites themselves are too far away to attack, the rectennas are simple, solid metal structures, and there is no radioactive or explosive fuel of any kind. Access to SSP energy cannot be cut by foreign governments, so America will have no need to maintain an expensive military presence in oil-rich regions.

The catch is cost. Compared to ground based energy, SSP requires enormous up-front expense, although after development of a largely-automated system to build solar power satellites from lunar materials SSP should be quite inexpensive. To get there, however, will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in R&D and infrastructure development - just what America is good at. And you know something, we're spending that kind of money, not to mention blood, on America's Persian Gulf military presence today, and gas went over $3/gallon anyway. In addition, we may end up spending even more to deal with global warming, at least in the worst-case scenarios. Expensive as it is, SSP may be the best bargain we've ever had.

What should we do? Besides having NASA do interesting and inspiring things, direct and fund NASA to do something vital: end U.S. dependence on foreign oil by developing SSP. Redirect the lunar base to do the mining, and develop the launch vehicles, inter-orbit transfer, and space manufacturing capacity to end oil's energy dominance completely and forever. It will be expensive, but it's a better, cheaper, safer strategy than military control of oil in far flung lands.

Oh, by the way, SSP will develop lunar mining, launch vehicles, and large satellite construction - most of what we need to build space settlements!

Al Globus serves on the National Space Society Board of Directors and is a senior research associate for Human Factors Research and Technology at San Jose State University at NASA Ames Research Center.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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