Space Based Solar Power Fuels Vision of Global Energy Security

Pentagon Looks to the Internet Community for Space Solar Power Study
This solar power satellite design features sets of lightweight, inflatable fresnel reflectors to focus the Sun's energy on small arrays of high-efficiency photovoltaic cells. (Image credit: NASA artwork by Pat Rawlings/SAIC.)

BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado – The deployment of space platforms that capture sunlight forbeaming down electrical power to Earth is under review by the Pentagon, as away to offer global energy and security benefits – including the prospect ofshort-circuiting future resource wars between increasingly energy-starvednations.

A proposalis being vetted by U.S. military space strategists that 10 percent of the U.S. baseload of energy by 2050, perhaps sooner, could be produced by space based solarpower (SBSP). Furthermore, a demonstration of the concept is being eyed tooccur within the next five to seven years.

A mix ofadvocates, technologists and scientists, as well as legal and policy experts,took part in Space Based Solar Power – Charting a Course for SustainableEnergy, a meeting held here September 6-7 and sponsored by the United StatesAir Force Academy?s Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies and thePentagon?s NationalSecurity Space Office.

Energyfrom space: Tangible commodity

"Itruly believe that space based solar power will become the first sellable, tradablecommodity that?s delivered by space that everybody on the planet can have partof," said Colonel (Select) Michael Smith, Chief, Future Concepts in theNational Security Space Office and director of the SBSP study. To bolster sucha vision, establishing a partnership of government, commercial andinternational entities is under discussion, he added, to work on infrastructuredevelopment that, ultimately, culminates in the fielding of space based solarpower.

The U.S.Department of Defense has an "absolute urgent need for energy," Smithsaid, underscoring the concern that major powers around the world – not justthe United States – could end up in a major war of attrition in the 21stcentury. "We?ve got to make sure that we alleviate the energy concernsaround the globe," he said.

"Energymay well be the first tangible commodity returned from space," said JosephRouge, Associate Director of the National Security Space Office. "Geopoliticsin general is going to be a large issue. I don?t think there?s any questionthat energy is going to be one of the key next issues, along with water ... that?sgoing to be the competition we?re going to fight."

Rouge saidthat moving out on the proposed SBSP effort would be the largest space ventureyet, making the Apollo Moon landing project "look like just a small littleprogram." As a caveat, however, he noted that the U.S. Department ofDefense is cash-strapped and is not the financial backer for such an endeavor.

"Butdo look to us to help you develop the technologies and developing a lot of theother infrastructure," Rouge advised, seeing SBSP, for instance, as helpingto spur a significant reduction in the cost of routine access to space for theU.S. and its allies.

Trendsof concern

There is acompelling argument of synergy between energy security, space security andnational security, observed Col. Michael Hornitschek, Co-Chair of the NationalSecurity Space Office Architecture Study on Space Based Solar Power.

Hornitschekflagged "trends of concern" in dealing with the world-wide energychallenge, citing global population and escalating energy demands, as well as theportent of climate change. He also referred to U.S. loss in global market shareand leadership, in addition to declines in research and development investmentsand a skilled workforce.

Although spacebased solar power has been studied since the 1970s – by the Department ofEnergy, NASA, the European Space Agency, as well as the Japan AerospaceExploration Agency – Hornitschek said that the idea has generally "fallenbetween the cracks" because no organization is responsible for both spaceprograms and energy security.

Over thelast few decades, the march of technology useful to SBSP has been significant,said Neville Marzwell, Manager of Advanced Concepts and Technology Innovationat the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Wehave made tremendous progress in technology from 1977 to 2007," Marzwellreported. He pointed to advances in micro and nano-electronics, lightweightinflatable composite structures, ultra-small power management devices, as wellas laboratory demonstration of photovoltaic arrays that are close to 68 percentconversion efficiency.

Still,there?s work to be done, Marzwell emphasized, specifically in wireless powerbeaming. By modularizing SBSP platforms, the work can start small and fosterbatch production to keep price per unit costs down while evolving a biggerenergy market, he said.

Home runkind of situation

Overall,pushing forward on SBSP "is a complex problem and one that lends itself toa wide variety of competing solutions," said John Mankins, President ofArtemis Innovation Management Solutions, LLC, in Ashburn, Virginia.

"There?sa whole range of science and technology challenges to be pursued. New knowledgeand 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 fundamentalphysical barriers," Mankins explained.

PeterTeets, Distinguished Chair of the Eisenhower Center for Space and DefenseStudies, said that SBSP must be economically viable with those economics probablynot there today. "But if we can find a way with continued technology development? and smart moves in terms of development cycles to bring clean energy fromspace to the Earth, it?s a home run kind of situation," he told attendeesof the meeting.

"It?sa noble effort," Teets told Space News. There remain uncertaintiesin SBSP, including closure on a business case for the idea, he added.

"Ithink the Air Force has a legitimate stake in starting it. But the scale ofthis project is going to be enormous. This could create a new agency ? whoknows? It?s going to take the President and a lot of political will to goforward with this," Teets said.

Demonstrationvia satellite

As currentdirector of the SBSP study for the National Security Space Office, Smith saidthat demonstrations of beamed energy from space – utilizing both breadboard labtests and by using space assets – are vital. One possibility is to extrapolatemeaningful lessons from signal transmissions by already orbiting communicationsatellites, he said, be they U.S. assets or experiments done with partnerselsewhere around the world.

An orbitingSBSP demonstration spacecraft must be a useful tool, Smith added, to deliverenergy while retiring science questions and identifying risk areas for nextphase SBSP development. Conceptually, a locale to receive test broadcasts ofbeamed energy from space could be Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, he noted.

Mankinstold Space News that the International Space Station could also be avenue from which to conduct a whole range of in-space SBSP-related experimentson relevant component technologies or subsystem technologies. "The spacestation is perfect for that," he said, perhaps making use of Japan?sstill-to-be-lofted experiment module, Kibo, and its Exposed Facility locatedoutside of the pressurized module.

Toengage in an open public discussion of space solar power, go to this websitesponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation:

  • Space BasedPower System Needed to Solve Earth?s Energy Woes
  • Moonbeamsto Power Earth
  • SpacePower For An Energy-Hungry Earth?


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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.