Monday, November 9, 2009

A Hand, Reaching to Space

It's easy to look up at the stars and be disappointed at how we've managed. For decades we've been told of the promise that's waiting for us up there, of the opportunities and possibilities inherent in space, and every year that goes by only pushes those dreams another year into the future. The vast disconnect between what we could have had and what we do have, as well as the consistent unwillingness of governments to appropriately fund space agencies in times of economic plenty, never cease to demoralize me. I've heard rumors recently that President Obama will not be giving NASA any more money - and if that's the case, we can say goodbye to the idea of a renewed lunar landing program from 2020.

The one spot of brightness in all this is that despite all the foot-dragging, we're rapidly approaching a point where space will no longer be the exclusive preserve of NASA and the Russian Space Agency. Yesterday Yahoo! News, via Agence France-Presse, posted a story covering what appears to be the Japanese government's serious interest in the construction of a solar power satellite network to ensure Japan's energy sercurity.

This plan is huge. Colossal. And that's the best way to do it. For too long we've been content with a handful of pressurized apartments rocketed out of the well, and tossed back into the atmosphere once funding or interest ran out. Space-based solar power stations would be massive - square kilometers, we're talking about - and would be in geosynchronous orbit, farther out than any human has been since 1972. They would be a truly zero-carbon source of power, and would be able to continue providing electricity regardless of the state of the planetary environment.

Research on this initiative has been underway since the late 1980s, when the 1973 energy crisis was still relatively fresh in the minds of governments around the world. If things continue on schedule, in eleven years Japan will be boosting a 10-megawatt proof-of-concept generator, and should it function well with no complications, they aim to have a station capable of generating one gigawatt of electricity in orbit by 2030.

It's not the biggest, yes. A nuclear power plant like Pickering Nuclear Generating Station produces considerably more electricity than that, and the mammoth coal-fired Nanticoke Generating Station, one of the single largest sources of pollution in Canada, dwarfs it with a generating capacity of nearly four gigawatts. Still, how much are you willing to pay for a method of power generation that has no environmental impact at all?

What's more - if this project does get off the ground, it would be incredibly meaningful for the future of space development. Systems that big need maintenance, and despite what starry-eyed opponents of human exploration would have you believe, robots are inflexible and poorly suited to situations that can't be planned and tested days in advance. A solar power station in orbit would require humans on the scene in order to ensure any problems were dealt with swiftly. The proliferation of space-based solar power could give greater impetus to initiatives to begin clearing orbit of dangerous debris - here, another thing that I do not believe robots could effectively do. There are still many things that require the human hand.


  1. For power satellites to really contribute to solving energy problems production needs to ramp up into the TW/year range. That needs a materials flow of 1000 t/hr. Even starting small, 200 GW/year is a flow of 100 t/hr and requires a cost of under $100/kg.

    It seems to be within the range of what we can do, 4 HTHL vehicles per hour taking a laser stage to 5 km/sec and a multi GW laser pushing them for the remaining 6.7k/sec to GEO.

    Google Henson oil drum or ask for a paper I just gave at the Beamed Energy Propulsion conference last week.

    Keith Henson

  2. It's not just NASA and Russia. The European Space Agency does a lot of launches too. And commercial launches through Arianespace and other companies; space hasn't been a NASA monopoly for a long time.

    Manned space has been NASA and Russia, true. Guess no one really had a business model for sending up people.

    As for maintenance... even if robots are less effective per arm, you have to look at cost-effectiveness. Also, here you're talking not about today's robotics but the robotics of 2030.