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DoD Eyes Space-Based Energy Source

by Ward Carroll on December 26, 2007

Here’s an interesting story ripped from the headlines at Military​.com. I’m intrigued by this idea and I’m wondering if some of our more informed readers out there can add some light to this subject.

BALI, Indonesia — While great nations fretted over coal, oil and global warming, one of the smallest at the U.N. climate conference was looking toward the heavens for its energy.

The annual meeting’s corridors can be a sounding board for unlikely “solutions” to climate change — from filling the skies with soot to block the sun, to cultivating oceans of seaweed to absorb the atmosphere’s heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Unlike other ideas, however, one this year had an influential backer, the Pentagon, which is investigating whether space-based solar power — beaming energy down from satellites — will provide “affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable and expandable energy for mankind.”

Tommy Remengesau Jr. is interested, too. “We’d like to look at it,” said the president of the tiny western Pacific nation of Palau.

The Defense Department this October quietly issued a 75-page study conducted for its National Security Space Office concluding that space power — collection of energy by vast arrays of solar panels aboard mammoth satellites — offers a potential energy source for global U.S. military operations.

It could be done with today’s technology, experts say. But the prohibitive cost of lifting thousands of tons of equipment into space makes it uneconomical.

That’s where Palau, a scattering of islands and 20,000 islanders, comes in.

In September, American entrepreneur Kevin Reed proposed at the 58th International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad, India, that Palau’s uninhabited Helen Island would be an ideal spot for a small demonstration project, a 260-foot-diameter “rectifying antenna,” or rectenna, to take in 1 megawatt of power transmitted earthward by a satellite orbiting 300 miles above Earth.

That’s enough electricity to power 1,000 homes, but on that empty island the project would “be intended to show its safety for everywhere else,” Reed said in a telephone interview from California.

Reed said he expects his U.S.-Swiss-German consortium to begin manufacturing the necessary ultralight solar panels within two years, and to attract financial support from manufacturers wanting to show how their technology — launch vehicles, satellites, transmission technology — could make such a system work. He estimates project costs at $800 million and completion as early as 2012.

At the U.N. climate conference here this month, a Reed partner discussed the idea with the Palauans, who Reed said could benefit from beamed-down energy if the project is expanded to populated areas.

“We are keen on alternative energy,” Palau’s Remengesau said. “And if this is something that can benefit Palau, I’m sure we’d like to look at it.”

Space power has been explored since the 1960s by NASA and the Japanese and European space agencies, based on the fundamental fact that solar energy is eight times more powerful in outer space than it is after passing through Earth’s atmosphere.

The energy captured by space-based photovoltaic arrays would be converted into microwaves for transmission to Earth, where it would be transformed into direct-current electricity.

Low-orbiting satellites, as proposed for Palau, would pass over once every 90 minutes or so, transmitting power to a rectenna for perhaps five minutes, requiring long-term battery storage or immediate use — for example, in recharging electric automobiles via built-in rectennas.

Most studies have focused instead on geostationary satellites, those whose orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth keeps them over a single location, to which they would transmit a continuous flow of power.

The scale of that vision is enormous: One NASA study visualized solar-panel arrays 3 by 6 miles in size, transmitting power to similarly sized rectennas on Earth.

Each such mega-orbiter might produce 5 gigawatts of power, more than twice the output of a Hoover Dam.

But how safe would those beams be?

Patrick Collins of Japan’s Azabu University, who participated in Japanese government studies of space power, said a lower-power beam, because of its breadth, might be no more powerful than the energy emanating from a microwave oven’s door. The beams from giant satellites would likely require precautionary no-go zones for aircraft and people on the ground, he said.

Rising oil costs and fears of global warming will lead more people to look seriously at space power, boosters believe.

“The climate change implications are pretty clear. You can get basically unlimited carbon-free power from this,” said Mark Hopkins, senior vice president of the National Space Society in Washington.

“You just have to find a way to make it cost-effective.”

Advocates say the U.S. and other governments must invest in developing lower-cost space-launch vehicles. “It is imperative that this work for ‘drilling up’ vs. drilling down for energy security begins immediately,” concludes October’s Pentagon report.

Some seem to hear the call. The European Space Agency has scheduled a conference on space-based solar power for next Feb. 29. Space Island Group, another entrepreneurial U.S. endeavor, reports “very positive” discussions with a European utility and the Indian government about buying future power from satellite systems.

To Robert N. Schock, an expert on future energy with the U.N.‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, space power doesn’t look like science fiction.

The panel’s 2007 reports didn’t address space power’s potential, Schock explained, because his team’s time horizon didn’t extend beyond 2030. But, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised at the beginning of the next century to see significant power utilized on Earth from space — and maybe sooner.“

– Christian

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Max December 26, 2007 at 9:27 am

“The beams from giant satellites would likely require precautionary no-go zones for aircraft and people on the ground, he said.”
So, put the “rectenna” in a desert place where few people or animals live, like the Sahara desert for Africa or Death Valley, California. Then just make it like Area 51 where no one is allowed to enter without special permission. Problem solved.
Of course, you would still have to deal with the extreme environmentalists who would be wringing their hands over the danger to the few creatures living in the desert.

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pedestrian December 26, 2007 at 10:39 am

>This technology has been suggested for decades, now… why is it only now that it is seriously
>being pursued?
I don’t know if this would be the answer to your question, but I will provide some background from what I know.
It was proposed once decades ago, but the cost was not attractive at that time which the government program vanished. The price of oil is up, and there is the risk of transporting oil to the frontline, or to the destinations where insurgency may be active. You want a solution where the terrorists has no touch to the life line of the military. That was one of the issues of Pentagon. Mobile nuclear plant was one of the proposal, but still has its own risks, especially in terms of political. You don’t want terrorists attacking such nuclear mobile plant. I am not against the project using satellites, but there is something much more cheap. The military is already aware of it, and I hope “it” will be built someday.

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The Cenobyte December 26, 2007 at 10:45 am

Years and years ago they took a long line of wire (I think about a 3rd of a k) and ran it out from the stuttle in orbit. This line running quickly through the magnetic field of earth generated a huge charge very quickly (And lit of like a xmas tree briefly becoming the 3rd brightest object in the sky). The system and idea is simple (Really the same idea of any electric generator, move wire through a magnetic field)… So why are we not seeing more of that? I have always wondered why they did not pursue this more. Hanging cables off IIS for example has to be lighter and more simple than all those solar arrays.

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Charles December 26, 2007 at 11:01 am

Bear in mind satellites are vulnerable to attack should we ever return to nation-state war.

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Chiropetra December 26, 2007 at 11:21 am

Shades of Gerald O’Neill and the High Frontier
There has been a lot of work done on this over the last four decades, but virtually none of it has been paid for by the government.
Back in the 70s O’Neill sketched out a conception for a series of rectenna powersats in geosynchronous orbit built with materials mined on the moon and launched to the building sites using electromagnetic “mass drivers”. His calculations showed you could provide almost all the Earth’s electricity needs this way.
It didn’t go anywhere because the project was too big for governments to get their heads around.
What’s being suggested here has a couple of problems. First, bringing the materials up from Earth to build the powersats is going to be extremely expensive. Second, by putting them in LEO you only have the sat within range of the rectenna for a very short period of time.
It’s an interesting idea, but I doubt seriously it will go anyway. There just isn’t that much mental flexibility in the government.
Oh, and the reason we don’t use long wires in the Earth’s magnetic field to power orbiting objects? Orbital decay. The conductors essentially get their energy from their orbital velocity, which decreases in proportion to the power drawn. Under the current conditions orbital velocity is one of the most expensive kinds of energy there is.

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James December 26, 2007 at 3:17 pm

sweet and omfg the green peace ppl should be extatic about this but like so many sanfran sisco poloticians and movie ppl theyll hate this like the love iran and amadinajad (however its spelled) anyways satelites to provide energy is a great idea and could have alot of great spinoffs
for instance think about the ability to maintain the satelites and to construct them on the face of it the shear cost sounds horrible but the same stations and/or ships could be used to maintaine repair upgrade and salvage military and commercial satelites wich would save billions a year if you could get the materials think about the binefits for missions to moon mars and such plus cheaper satelites less heat generated on the surface hell its a win win plus the orbital mining wich mining companies hear have been wanting to get into but havent had the chance
um so anyways check this out has some good stuff
http://www.permanent.com/a-mining.htm
anyways sweet

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campbell December 26, 2007 at 3:40 pm

hello? the lights are ON, but don’t think anyones’ home….cause they’re ingnoring the lights……which HIT the earth already.
Why even consider the high cost of lofting needed materials to construct power sources in orbit, when the very sunlight you want to access comes to you already? it’s all sexy-candy and nothing more.
put those collectors on the OCEAN.
duh.

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Dennis December 26, 2007 at 3:44 pm

It has never been taken seriously due to the fact it costs way too much to get the infrastructure into space.
This is what happens when you have a Federal Agency, run by people who otherwise would be running a state DMV, in charge of innovation.
Innovation takes risks. And failures.
All of which NASA bureaucrats have no stomach for.

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Chris December 26, 2007 at 5:05 pm

@campbell: I’m sure you just missed it in the article, but only about 1/8 of the light that hits Earth makes it to the surface.
“… based on the fundamental fact that solar energy is eight times more powerful in outer space than it is after passing through Earth’s atmosphere.”
Thus, instead of 18 square miles of solar panels in space, you would need 144 square miles on the surface. You have now made it cost prohibitive. Basing the collector in space would allow it to collect 24/7 (given the proper orbit), whereas basing the collector on the surface, it would only collect for approx. 12 hours (location, location, location).

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Eric December 26, 2007 at 7:10 pm

Back in the 1990′s I saw some calculations that suggested that launch costs would have to drop 100 times to make electricity from space economically viable. Obviously one could also raise the price of electricity 100 times or make the satellites last 100 times longer, but I seriously doubt these factors have combined to make the idea economically viable yet. I suspect that it’s like some of the stranger oil sources - good enough to be kept in permenent holding pattern until prices jump high enough.
Also, I have to comment on the poster who suggested that deserts would be a good place to put these arrays. Two factors seem to go against this:
1) As a zoologist let me just step on the notion that an array in the desert will kill less animals. While there are less animals per square kilometer in the desert the average desert animal has to cover more square kilometers to find food, and so I doubt that over time there will be less contacts between the beam focus spot and local wildlife.
2) In reality environmental concerns are going to be secondary, especially in a world where humans are perhaps less well-off. However, the cost of electricity will depend on loss before it reaches its destination. Without room temperature superconductors that’s going to mean geographic proximity. Deserts are rather uncommon. Fews nations contain them, for starters, and even in the United States, which contains several small deserts, a collector in the southwestern desert will not be able to power Maine economically.

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allan swank December 26, 2007 at 8:31 pm

I’ve heard these and other ideas for years. Each has merits and drawbacks and costs. I’m sure each has been pursued to some degree by advocates hoping to capitalize. My greatest criticism applies to all of them: they unneccessarily push the boundries of technology. If we were certain they would work effectivly, any would be worth agressivly pursuing. Why experiment on a global scale when cheap, clean, inexhaustable fuel is available and has been utilized for decades and requires a very low level of technology: Hydrogen. A few earth-located photovaltaics (OK, a bunch) to generate a little electricity to hydrolize water and, bingo, we have H2 - and pure O2 thrown in for a kicker. “Civilized” man is still reacting to the Hindenberg disaster by distrusting hydrogen. Even the H2 we are now using is generated from petroleum and utilized in an enormously complex fuel cell.
Fortunately, hydrogen is being enthusiasticly developed and will soon make it’s mass entrance onto the world scene, first as heating fuel, then as automotive. Get with it.

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lightning December 27, 2007 at 1:07 am

allan — The easiest way to use hydrogen is to hook it onto carbon. Like, say, gasoline.
Hydrogen is just a way of carrying energy around. And it isn’t very efficient.
As to the powersats, repairs are a bitch.

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Mike December 27, 2007 at 6:32 am

Two points:
1 - A spaced-based system of reasonable capacity (equivalent to a large conventional or nuclear power generation facility, say) that beams power down to earth would make one hell of a weapon until it was taken out (which should be fairly easy.)
2 - To make hydrogen via electrolysis, one does not need “a little electricity.” You need a whole lot of electricity. Hydrogen is just a battery, and not a particularly good one, either.

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A.Hoffmann December 27, 2007 at 6:41 am

Looking at alternative forms of enery production is a great idea. I do not feel we need to go to such extremes. Keep it simple, to create energy a force is required. This force is utilized by converting its enery into something we can use. I believe with the poles of the earth could provide unlimited energy. By building a conduit from one pole to the other we could create a difference in potencial due to magnetic differencial. Let the world create the power for you. This would require International cooperation which is the biggest obstical.

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Steve Brent December 27, 2007 at 12:54 pm

What would this energy do to the atmosphere, the ozone layer.?

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Steve Brent December 27, 2007 at 12:55 pm

What would this energy do to the atmosphere, the ozone layer.?

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exnuke December 27, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Sorry guys. This idea has been around since the ’60s. The major problem with it is the power density of the transfer beam. To much energy and you fry whatever happens under the beam. This means that the antenna will be huge. Nice idea, it should even work. Just don’t let the enviromentalists know what you are up to. They’ll shut it down just as the shut down the only power source we have that will produce more fuel than it burns. What? You didn’t know that such a thing existed? Well, sweet-cheeks, there just happens to be such a technology. It just happens that Nuclear Power can create more fuel than it burns allowing the country to be independent of fossil fuels. To bad it will never happen as long as we listen to those who would destroy us and our civilization.

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Ian December 28, 2007 at 1:45 am

beaming energy down from satellites - will provide “affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable and expandable energy for mankind.”
Not to mention the technology has a dual use for space based energy weapons.
NOD is attacking! Charge the ion cannon!

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pedestrian December 28, 2007 at 9:27 am

>beaming energy down from satellites - will provide “affordable, clean, safe, reliable,
>sustainable and expandable energy for mankind.”
Cost performance is the priority. Forget the rest. If it isn’t economic, it’s likely not going to make through.

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Eric December 28, 2007 at 10:30 am

I’m interested to hear how something can produce more fuel than it uses, since this sound like a violation of conservation of energy. This probably means I didn’t understand what was meant by the statement.
Anyway, we should separate ideas about energy sources from ideas about energy carriers. Energy sources are places we get energy from initially - the sun, fossil fuels, coal, geothermal sources, wind, tides, waves, the motion of rivers. energy carriers are ways to carry that energy to where it is needed - wires, batteries, ethanol, hydrogen. Even in a country powered entirely by nukes there will be a role for energy carriers, probably hydrogen, because you can’t put a nuke plant in your car. The energy loss to transfer the energy in nuclear fuel to a chemical is worth it economically if that chemical can be placed in a vehicle, be it car, boat, or airplane, and used to power the motion of that vehicle.
This is a long way of saying that hydrogen is not a suitable replacement for either nukes or solar sats. Either, however, could provide the power to electrolyze seawater to make hydrogen to power vehicles. (Or you could tinker with some deep-sea bacteria that seem to want to burp hydrogen while they feed, and put them in a tank out back with some bacteria-chow.)

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Nuke-E December 28, 2007 at 1:57 pm

Eric — Making more fuel than you consume is the principle behind fast breeder reactors. It’s a fundamentally different technology from the Light Water Reactors we use in the US. Basically, “waste” neutrons from the Uranium 235 fission reaction are captured by Uranium 238 (not fuel, won’t fission) and convert it to Plutonium 239 (fuel). So it’s not creating energy, it’s converting a non-fuel substance into a fuel. Sort of like converting seawater to hydrogen.
France experimented with fast breeder reactors on a commercial scale (the Phenix and Super Phenix reactors), but they gave up breeding because fuel reprocessing is such a hideously dirty process.
In the US, President Clinton cut funding for breeder reactor research in 1993, and it has never been explored on a large scale. Considering the environmental impact of military fuel reprocessing in Hanford, WA, magnifying that 1000 times over for commercial reprocessing is a step we’re not technologically ready to take.
Ken, you’re confusing the cost of power with the cost of generating capacity. The cost of a 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant today (if anyone were ordering them) would be about $2.5 billion, with about a 40 year plant life and actually generating power about 75% of that time.
Allan Swank, there’s no such things as “unnecessarily pushing the bounds of technology”. If people didn’t push the bounds, we wouldn’t have the semiconductor, the transistor, the light bulb, the bow and arrow. Really, what technological achievements do you consider “necessary”?

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Praedor Atrebates December 28, 2007 at 2:20 pm

I remember reading about this sort of thing back in the 80s in Gerard K. O’Neill’s books about ways to build huge, self-sustaining space habitats. Quick synopsis: mine most materials from the moon, build HUGE spinning space habitats capable of holding up to 10,000 people per habitat. Interior is spacious and open, with hills, water, trees, grass, birds, insects, etc. Part of paying for all this was the mining operations on the moon used to build them in the first place AND solar power stations in orbit. Huge arrays placed so that there are stations in needed areas that are always in sunlight. The energy from these huge photovoltaic arrays is converted to microwaves and beamed down to the Earth’s surface. On the ground is a huge microwave antenna farm. Open, airy…basically metal screens suspended over the ground (sunlight, rain, etc, can still get through).
The idea was that these would be relatively benign and clean. Except for the local energy density of microwaves, of course, and the recent indications that even the microwave energy emitted by cell phones is enough to increase the rate of brain cancer in heavy cell phone using people (annoying jerks that they are).
I suppose a more modern variation on the theme might be to “fly” the receiving antennas high in the atmosphere (stratosphere) on tethered aircraft/kites. They absorb and convert the microwaves back to electricity and transmit the juice down their tethers. Overall, you would likely be better off with merely changing building codes to REQUIRE a minimum amount of solar energy collector on all new houses and BIG incentives to get them on older housing within the geographic areas where this makes sense. Both for hot water generation AND for electricity generation. Throw in wind farms, geothermal, tidal and current generators on the coasts, some modern nuke plants, and when absolutely necessary and unavoidable, coal powerplants with carbon sequestration (and ban ALL incandescent light bulbs in favor of CF or LED lighting) and you do a LOT to fix all that ails us.

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stephen russell December 28, 2007 at 11:13 pm

Finally Gearld K O Niells dream for Space based Solar Power takes root since book debut in 1975.
Major Income source.
Rectenna sites can be: No Africa, Norway, Russia, China, Greenland, Australia, CO, KS, WY,
Phillpines, Dubai UAE, Java, Brazil.
Amen.

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