How serious is space solar power?

Mafic Studios

This artist’s conception shows a space-based satellite equipped with photoelectric cells, plus an antenna that transmits the generated power down to Earth as a microwave beam. Click on the image for a graphic presentation showing how space-based solar power works.



By Alan Boyle

The idea of beaming down power from outer space has surfaced in science-fiction stories and government studies for decades now. Commercial deals have been struck, prototype satellites have been proposed, international initiatives have been announced. But has any real progress been made toward developing space-based solar power systems? That’s what we’re talking about this Sunday on “Virtually Speaking Science.”

A few ventures have been working on the technological challenge of beaming power from Point A to Point B, in the form of laser beams or microwaves. In 2009, a company called LaserMotive won $900,000 in a NASA-backed competition for beam-powered robots. The same company proved last year that they could keep a quadrocopter up in the air all night, just by focusing a laser beam on its power-generating arrays. And in 2008, Managed Energy Technology demonstrated a wireless RF transmission system that could send a small-scale power beam over a distance of up to 90 miles.

But all these experiments are firmly grounded on planet Earth. Has anyone gotten to the point of building the hardware for beaming experiments in outer space?

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“None of them that I know of is at the point of turning steel,” said Air Force Col. M.V. “Coyote” Smith, who’ll be our guest on Sunday’s show. Smith spearheaded a 2007 study for the Defense Department that laid out a scenario for the military use of space-based solar power, and made a follow-up proposal for a power-beaming satellite project called “One Lightbulb.”

The idea was to beam enough power from space to make just one little LED light shine. Smith figured that $10 million would be enough to go ahead with the satellite project and learn how to overcome the technological as well as the international regulatory hurdles that bigger satellites might face. But the Pentagon didn’t go for the idea.

“It’s a new mission area,” Smith explained, “and in this austere budget era, it’s difficult to attract a sponsor organization.”

For now, Smith is pinning his hopes on small-scale commercial ventures to get the ball rolling. “I think what you’re going to see is that the commercial community is going to step up to the plate and do minor studies that would bait the interest,” he told me.

What do you think? Will PG&E’s customers be getting some of their electricity from space by 2016, as the California-based Solaren venture promised a couple of years ago? Or will space solar power stay in the realm of science fiction for decades to come? Tune in our show on your computer at 8 p.m. ET Sunday, or join the studio audience in the Second Life virtual world. (To get there, here’s the SLurl.)

Heck, you can even watch the Oscars on TV while you’re listening to “Virtually Speaking Science” on the computer. My Second Life avatar is probably better-looking than some of the actors you’ll be seeing. Wish I could say the same thing for my First Life face.

More about space solar power:

* Space solar power crowd bets on Obama * Controversy flares over space power plan * How do you make space power pay? * Interactive: Harvesting energy from orbit

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My co-host on “Virtually Speaking Science” is Robin Snelson of the Space Studies Institute. Listen to the podcast from our Feb. 13 show, which featured Tim Pickens, team leader of the Rocket City Space Pioneers. And stay tuned for our program about Pluto and suborbital spaceflight on March 13, the 81st anniversary of the announcement of Pluto’s discovery.

Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the “like” button on our Facebook page or by following science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about Alan Boyle’s book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for “The Case for Pluto.”


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