The sun never sets in space.
The idea of harvesting solar energy via power-beaming satellites has therefore long intrigued researchers looking for ways to feed an energy-ravenous Earth.
That reflection has fomented for decades but is now garnering new looks all over the world: Technologists in the U.S. and China, experts in Japan and researchers within the European Space Agency and the United Kingdom Space Agency are all working to make space-based solar power a reality.
The idea of wireless power transmission dates back to Nikola Tesla near the end of the 19th century.
Fast-forwarding to 1968, the notion of a solar power satellite was detailed and patented by U.S. space pioneer Peter Glaser. He blueprinted a novel way to collect energy from sunlight using solar cells and beam down an energetic muscle of microwaves to receiving antennas (“rectennas”) on Earth. Those microwaves could then be converted to electrical energy and supplied to the power grid.
Then, in the mid-1970s, microwave power transmission experiments in the tens of kilowatts were successfully conducted at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California, a facility of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
And this “power trip” doesn’t stop there.
Over the past decade, researchers have made impressive advances that increase the likelihood that space solar power (SSP) will be realized during the next decade, said John Mankins, president of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions of Santa Maria, California. His view: the longstanding vision for SSP as a sustainable energy alternative should be revisited in light of such recent advances.
Bolstering that outlook is a set of key perspectives, Mankins told Space.com. “Climate change is really going to be a disaster. Nations are committed to go carbon net-zero … and they have no idea how to do it.”
The rapidly unfolding value of “New Space” is also reshaping the landscape of 21st century space activities, he added. “Two of the biggest hurdles to the realization of SSP have always been the cost of launch and the cost of hardware,” said Mankins. “Add flight rate, and all of a sudden you’re looking at numbers always talked about for solar power satellites.”
Related: What is climate change?
Another recent change is the dawn of the megaconstellations, Mankins added.
That’s exemplified by SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, a mass-production effort that now cranks out 30 tons of satellites a month. SpaceX is on course to potentially manufacture 40,000 satellites within five years, and launch all of them.
“The path to low-cost hardware has been shown,” Mankins said. “It’s modular and mass-produced. The hurdles of less-expensive launch and lowering hardware costs have been overcome.”
Mankins said that the economics of SSP concepts in the near term, within the next decade, have never been more viable. He flagged advances in space launch capabilities; progress in robotics for space assembly, maintenance and servicing systems; and the growth in various component technologies, such as high-efficiency solid state power amplifiers.
As a result, SSP is ready to see the light of day, Mankins said.
An early entrant in focusing on understanding the energy policy needed and establishment of SSP is James Michael Snead, president of the Spacefaring Institute. He’s adopted the use of the term “astroelectricity” to describe the transmitted electrical power produced by SSP systems.
In looking at what he terms the “coming age of astroelectricity,” he sees a world needing a replacement for oil and natural gas, the two primary sources of energy currently maintaining an industrial standard of living.
Snead envisions a world in the year 2100 where about 20% of electrical power comes from terrestrial nuclear and renewables, with 80% supplied by astroelectricity.
“Just as the military, economic and diplomatic control of Middle East oil has substantially influenced world events for the past 80 years, the control of space solar power platforms will come to dominate outer space activities this century,” Snead told Space.com.
Wanted: high-priority leadership
If SSP becomes a reality later this century, Snead said, the U.S. military will be required to protect and defend these new sources of national energy security just as it guards oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf today.
“While some people are developing SSP concepts that would be launched from the Earth and autonomously assembled in geostationary Earth orbit, I do not see this as a successful proposition,” said Snead. He believes that building the thousands of SSP platforms needed requires a substantial space industrialization effort involving more than a million people in space by the end of the century.
The starting point, Snead said, will be establishing the enabling “astrologistics” infrastructure operating throughout the Earth-moon system. He stressed that those astrologistics require high-priority U.S. Air Force — not Space Force — leadership to draw upon nearly a century of human flight/operational logistics experience and expertise.
That is necessary to manage industry’s efforts to design and build the required new human spaceflight systems, with a clearly needed emphasis on safety and effectiveness, Snead said.
As these new military astrologistics capabilities begin, Snead contends, commercialization of these capabilities will extend these safety and operational benefits to support the coming space industrial revolution needed to undertake SSP.
“This is exactly what happened to enable U.S. airline manufacturers to dominate the airline and air cargo industry for decades. It is a successful model to now replicate in space — a model that neither NASA nor the U.S. Space Force can effectively execute,” Snead said.
‘Performing like a champ’
While new artwork, economic plots and conceptual SPS thinking and visions flow, there’s an in-space technology experiment already underway.
On its latest mission, which launched in May 2020, the Space Force’s robotic X-37B space plane is toting the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module Flight Experiment (PRAM-FX), a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) investigation into transforming solar power into radio-frequency microwave energy.
The focus of that X-37B investigation is not establishing an actual power-beaming link, but more on appraising the performance of sunlight-to-microwave conversion.
“It is performing like a champ,” said Paul Jaffe, an NRL electronics engineer working on power beaming and solar power satellites. “We are getting data regularly, and that data is exceeding our expectations,” he told Space.com.
PRAM-FX is principally made out of commercial parts, not “space-grade” hardware. “The fact that it is continuing to operate and give us positive results is quite encouraging,” Jaffe said. Commercial parts are mass-produced, while many space-grade parts are one-offs.
Solar power satellites, like those envisioned in high Earth orbit, would have thousands of elements made out of similar components being tested onboard the X-37B, Jaffe said.
Making the economics work
There’s much more work ahead, of course.
“The big strike against space solar power has always been making the economics work. People who have looked at the idea seriously do understand that, from a physics standpoint, there is no reason you couldn’t do it,” Jaffe said.
“With mass production of space hardware, and with the cost reduction of space access, it is more plausible that it could work,” he added. “I would caution against excessive optimism … but also point out that things are changing. There are a lot of encouraging developments.”
SPS will assuredly be compared to a “levelized cost of energy” metric, Jaffe concluded. “There’s just not enough data to come up with a levelized cost of energy basis for space solar power. It’s premature. What you are seeing now is laying the foundation for that sort of evaluation.”
Clear, affordable path
To that end, Mankins of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions has rolled out SPS-ALPHA (“Solar Power Satellite by means of Arbitrarily Large Phased Array”), a design he showcased at the 72nd International Astronautical Congress, which was held from Oct. 25 to Oct. 29 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Detailing a business model and step-by-step SSP roadmap, he feels the concept promises a clear, affordable path to deploying a critically needed new energy option.
“I believe you could have operational solar power satellites to scale within a decade,” Mankins said.
That possibility, combined with the fact that multiple nations are eying SSP as a promising power generation system of the future, begs a question: Is there a solar power satellite race afoot?
It is close to that, Mankins said. “I think it has to be cooperation among friends and allies. But I think it’s very likely to end up being competition with China. The longer we wait with regard to the urgency of policies on climate change, the more likely it is we’re going to miss the boat.”
Mankins is a 26-year veteran of assessing SSP and the technologies required. “The moment has come,” he said. “I think the right answer is really clear: We need to just go do it.”
Leonard David is author of the book “Moon Rush: The New Space Race,” published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.