24 June 2010

A Compelling Argument For Space Solar Power


A Compelling Argument For Space Solar Power
Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. at 6/22/2010 10:03 AM CDT

A small band of visionary engineers, mostly in Japan and the U.S., has long argued that it would make a lot of sense to apply the space-faring skills gained over the past half century and tap the constant flow of solar energy washing over the planet.

Orbiting solar arrays could convert the Sun's power into electricity and beam it down to the surface as microwaves. Antenna farms could catch it, switch it back to electricity and plug it into the power grid. The technology exists, and has been tested at low power -- and cost -- with mountaintop-to-mountaintop transmissions between a couple of the Hawaiian Islands.

John Mankins, a former NASA technologist and longtime advocate for space solar power (SSP) who helped set up the test, says the next step toward a pilot SSP plant able to generate 5-10 megawatts would be an end-to-end systems study, with early lab work and low-cost flight tests -- perhaps at the International Space Station. The study would take about three years and cost about $100 million.

That's a lot of money, of course, and times are tight. Cost has long been the most effective argument against SSP, because the up-front cost of developing and deploying the technology is greater than the cost of energy from fossil fuel. But consider this:

NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team

NASA's Terra satellite used its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer June 19 to collect this image of the spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. British Petroleum, the company that owns the mess, has famously agreed to fund a $20 billion cleanup.

That sum, which likely won't be enough to clean up this oily mess, would be a very generous down payment on a space solar power constellation. Certainly it would more than cover the SSP power plant Mankins has suggested.

Maybe it's time to amortize the cost of fossil fuel. The disaster in the Gulf is dramatic evidence that it's more than the price of gasoline at the pump. But so are rising global temperatures, the world's fragile oil-based economy, and the dangerous military conflicts that hold it all together.

By comparison, space solar power is not too expensive. Like sunlight, it's free.

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