Image: Power tower in space
Pat Rawlings  /  SAIC
An orbiting tower of solar panels, shown extending into space in this artist's conception, could gather power to beam down to Earth — if the technological challenges can be addressed. The Pentagon has set up an Internet-based system for soliciting ideas on space-based solar power.
By Space News staff writer
updated 7/25/2007 3:00:23 PM ET 2007-07-25T19:00:23

A Pentagon office is taking advantage of the collaborative nature of the Internet as it studies potential applications for space-based solar power, according to one of the officials leading the effort.

The effort marks the first time the National Security Space Office, or NSSO, has conducted a study that relies heavily on Internet collaboration, according to Air Force Col. (select) M.V. "Coyote" Smith, chief of the NSSO's future concepts division. Smith is the director of the study, which began in late April.

In a July 18 interview, Smith said his time is the only resource the NSSO has used on the study, which is due to be delivered to Maj. Gen. James Armor, NSSO's director, in September. Two other Pentagon officials leading the effort are working on a volunteer basis in their spare time, and John Mankins, a former NASA official who had led the agency's work on this topic, is donating his time as well to help the NSSO tap into past work, Smith said. Mankins currently serves as president of the Space Power Association.

A key component of the study is an ongoing discussion moderated by Smith on a Web site hosted by the Space Frontier Foundation. The foundation also has helped collect input from scientists and engineers who also have been working on the space-based solar power issue, in many cases in their spare time as well.

The Web site has received more than 5,000 hits since it went online in mid-June, Smith said. The site features a blog run by Smith, and people interested in the topic can respond to his posts with feedback. The site also features information about the NSSO study and articles on the topic.

Based on the success thus far, Smith said that he would like to see the NSSO open future studies up to similar public discussion where classification is not a limiting factor.

Jeff Krukin, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, which has been studying space-based solar power for years, said that he has been pleased with the collaboration with the NSSO thus far, and would like to work together again on other topics in the future. Krukin said he has welcomed the NSSO's interest in space-based solar power, as it helps add legitimacy to the concept.

The Space Frontier Foundation believes that there are energy and environmental benefits that could come from space-based solar power — collecting solar power in space and transmitting it back to Earth — and that construction of systems for this purpose could provide a major stimulus for the space industry. For example, it could lead to the construction and launch of more satellites, he said.

How it all began
Krukin said the idea for collaborating with the NSSO came after an event in April when he asked a Pentagon official who was speaking at a luncheon about the NSSO's interest in space solar power after reading about it in Space News. Smith was sitting next to Krukin, and the two began talking about space-based solar power, Krukin said.

Both Smith and Krukin said while they are excited about the potential benefits that could come from space-based solar power, they do not view it as a panacea for military or civilian energy needs, and they encouraged the development of other new energy sources.

With satellites that could collect solar energy and beam it to areas all over the world, Smith said space-based solar power could help reduce the military's need for convoys that carry fuel through dangerous areas, and could be used for disaster relief operations like the reconstruction of an area devastated by a hurricane as well.

"It's a formidable challenge — going back to the moon might be easier," Smith said. "Currently with today's technology, we can't do it. I don't know if the technology of tomorrow can close the business case, but the technology from the day after tomorrow will close it. My job is to find the critical path to the day after tomorrow's technology."

Identifying critical technologies
Smith said the study is intended to identify various efforts within the federal government to develop critical technology needed for space-based solar power, and to use the results to advocate for robust funding for those efforts.

As that technology is matured, energy companies may see that the space-based solar power concept is viable, and build and operate the satellites and required ground infrastructure, he said.

One critical part of the equation likely will be new launch vehicles capable of carrying heavy payloads to geosynchronous orbit at a much lower cost than the vehicles of today, Smith said. Significantly reduced launch costs will be critical — because the limitations of solar arrays, another technology that will need to be advanced to enable space-based solar power, likely will require a large constellation of satellites to handle a small percentage of energy consumption, Smith said.

Smith said he hopes to see space-based solar power systems operational by 2050 that could provide for a few percentage points of total U.S. energy consumption, and perhaps as much as 10 percent of U.S. energy use by 2060.

The path toward evolving the technology could involve developing a demonstration satellite capable of providing about 400 kilowatts of power that could launch around 2012, followed by two 2-megawatt satellites by 2017, he said.

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