23 March 2009

Will Obama pursue space-based solar power?

Could power beamed to Earth from space solve our energy problems? Advocates of space-based solar power may find a receptive ear in the Obama administration.
The space-based solar power (SBSP) concept involves using geosynchronous satellites to collect solar energy and beam it down to Earth, most likely in the form of microwaves (this graphic shows how the idea might work).
The key advantage over Earth-based solar power is that such satellites would enjoy nearly continuous sunshine. A major challenge for Earth-based solar power is that it is so inconstant - it isn't available at night or when skies are cloudy. You could solve this problem by storing energy for later use, but it's difficult to do this in a cost-effective way, and something people are still researching.
The major disadvantage for SBSP is that it's so costly to launch stuff into space. But advocates of the idea point to new launch vehicles being developed, like SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which could bring down the cost of access to space, and make SBSP more attractive.
Advocates for SBSP are hoping to secure some support for developing the technology from the Obama administration, given the incoming president's pledge to make developing alternative energy sources a top priority. They have posted a white paper on the topic on the transition website, change.gov.
One thing that surely helps their cause is that one of Obama's transition team members for NASA is George Whitesides, who has been a vocal advocate for SBSP. Whitesides is currently on leave from his post as executive director of the National Space Society, where he helped push for SBSP research.
On the downside, earlier this month NASA cancelled early work on a proposed SBSP demonstration project, which apparently could have involved putting a demonstration device on the International Space Station.
But it sounds like the decision owes more to a tight budget at NASA than anything else, and I see no reason why the project couldn't be revived if the next administration takes an interest in SBSP. So I wouldn't count out SBSP just yet.
On the other hand, I'm sure SBSP will be competing with lots of other alternative-energy ideas seeking research dollars. And even though Whitesides has a record of strong advocacy for SBSP, this doesn't guarantee that the Obama administration will go for it. There are more highly placed people who will undoubtedly get a bigger say in this, like energy secretary nominee Steven Chu, who hasn't said much publicly about SBSP.
I think it's fair to say that this could be a crucial moment for SBSP, however, so it's definitely something to watch over the next few months.
What do you think? Is SBSP the way to go, or is some other alternative-energy source a better bet?
David Shiga, physical sciences reporter (Illustration: Mafic Studios)

1 comment:

Keith Henson said...

There is no point in an experiment on the space station to demonstrate space based solar power transmission. There are few things in the universe better understood than forming microwave beams.

The serious problem is the cost of lifting a million tons per year to GEO. But in the last year there has been a serious breakthrough that offers a 200 to one reduction in the cost of lifting power sat parts to GEO.

More here


Keith Henson