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Astrium Hopes To Test Grabbing Solar Energy From Orbit 144

Posted by timothy
from the don't-stand-underneath-when-they-fly-by dept.
goldaryn writes "Word from the BBC today is that Europe's biggest space company is seeking partners to help get a satellite-based solar power trial into orbit: 'EADS Astrium says the satellite system would collect the Sun's energy and transmit it to Earth via an infrared laser, to provide electricity. Space solar power has been talked about for more than 30 years as an attractive concept because it would be 'clean, inexhaustible, and available 24 hours a day.' However, there have always been question marks over its cost, efficiency and safety. But Astrium believes the technology is close to proving its maturity.'"
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Astrium Hopes To Test Grabbing Solar Energy From Orbit

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  • uhh... (Score:2, Interesting)

    ...would collect the Sun's energy and transmit it to Earth via an infrared laser, to provide electricity.

    Can someone give a safety analysis please? It's my understanding infrared energy can be refracted by the atmosphere or diffused when there is particulate -- and if the beam strength is high enough, there's the potential for it to scatter and hit an unintended target. You know, like your skull.

    • Re:uhh... (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:08PM (#30849374)

      They are completely unsafe. Even a slight failure to focus the beam would destroy a huge area of land, kill thousands of people, and cause millions in damage. This analysis is based on my highly technical computer simulation [wikipedia.org].

      • A multi-megawatt infrared laser beam aimed at a small location on earth from a free-falling object a couple hundred miles away. All together now:
        What could possibly go wrong?
        • by LehiNephi (695428)
          Then why not put the collector somewhere offshore, and run a high-voltage cable to the onshore grid? Oil platforms already do this.
        • by TheKidWho (705796)

          Everything and anything could go wrong if an idiot like you designed it, thankfully or at least hopefully the guys at EADS Astrium aren't idiots.

          • by asdf7890 (1518587)
            The project will be compose of the lowest bidders for each constituent part. I find you *abundance* of faith disturbing!
            • Re:uhh... (Score:5, Insightful)

              by ZorbaTHut (126196) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @04:40PM (#30850786) Homepage

              You know what I always think is kind of weird?

              People have this view of big-business as being this lumbering creature trying to save a cent everywhere they possibly can. Remove safety here, cut corners there, as long as it works for five minutes after it's sold, it's good enough. And, yes, in some ways this is justified. But on the other hand, this same technique is used everywhere - everywhere - in skyscrapers, in cargo ships, in the ridiculously complicated personal computer that you are using right now to read this.

              We know how to manage risk, and we know how to manage safety. We can make things exactly as safe as we want to, assuming we're willing to pay the money.

              We live in a world where we combust petrochemicals inside high-precision aluminum devices to fling multi-ton metal boxes around many times faster than we can run. When we get to our destination we purchase mass-produced foodstuffs, many of which have never been inspected by humans. We go to work in megaton cages of steel and concrete, sometimes in areas where the ground itself is known to shake with deadly force, and we sit there eating our food while sitting mere feet from copper cables carrying enough electricity to kill us a hundred times over, protected only by drywall and rubber insulation.

              All of these things were provided by the lowest bidder.

              And then we go home and complain about the scary new lasers and how people don't make things like they used to, damn them, they'll destroy us all, if only they didn't cut corners.

              I dunno. Somehow I'm just not all that worried.

              • Well I'm certainly not going to sleep easy tonight!
              • Going with the lowest bidder is fine, as long as there are few unknowns and you can use statistical process control or similar old, reliable means of quality assurance. But the WTFs I have seen in our area of business nonetheless makes me uncomfortable. If there is a crack in the quality control regime, and sufficient competition, and money can be saved by exploiting that crack, then it will be exploited.

                (A separate issue is that winner's curse means that honest low bidders often go out of business, and lea

              • by definate (876684)

                What I hate is that they maintain that view of big businesses being:

                lazy
                cheap
                stupid
                lumbering

                While also maintaining the view that they are:

                extremely driven to be evil
                willing to spend inordinate amounts of money to achieve their ruthless goals
                genius criminals, who can develop extremely complex methods to achieve their goals
                agile and precise, such that the person/people at the top, precisely control the company

                These 2 views are in complete contradiction, you can't logically maintain both.

                Similarly, you see the

              • by Max von H. (19283)

                How dare you inject Common Sense and Logic in such a /. thread?

                We're talking about freakin' laser beams here, you insensitive clod!

      • by ragefan (267937)

        Clearly they will design this satellite to have its own team of robots worshiping the Master in order to make sure everything runs smoothly.

    • Its about as dangerous as the inside of a coal fired plant boiler - ie not a good place to stand, if they used a high intensity beam. They probably wont though. Although some solar cells on the ground receiving end can take 400 suns intensity, they require active cooling or they melt (very much the same as CPUs in computers, and roughly the same energy per area). If your cooling failed, you would damage your reciever, so it would be an expensive repair.

      The point of solar from space is that you get around

      • by LehiNephi (695428)
        Current satellites use solar panels for power. If you beam power up from earth, you're going to need....solar panels to collect it. If the solar panels can handle more light than they currently get from direct solar radiation, you might be onto something. Considering that most of the diffraction/refraction/scattering of light happens in the first few miles of atmosphere, it seems to me that light beamed up from earth would be scattered far more than light beamed to earth from space.
      • by TheKidWho (705796)

        Except for the fact that it's rather difficult to send power to a satellite that is orbiting at LEO... You know, orbital mechanics and all.

      • You would use the same solar panels they have there now, but since the Station is in the earth's shadow 40% of the time, they don't generate power currently during part of the orbit. And by bypassing the batteries on the truss, you also gain from not having the battery conversion losses, so its possible to get around a 2x total power increase.

        @LehiNephi - The Space Station is a big enough target that atmospheric distortion is not a problem. At that altitude you would be able to see a target about 1.5m acr

    • by goldaryn (834427)

      there's the potential for it to scatter and hit an unintended target. You know, like your skull.

      Not if you purchase my "goldytron" laser repellent tinfoil-based cranial apparel! Now available for the low low price of $250, because "peace of mind is priceless"!

    • by LandGator (625199)
      Put a ring of reflectors on the outer periphery, and watch the output from the satellite with multiple systems. If any of the observation systems fails, unfocus the beam immediately (quicker than a safe shutdown), so no one point on the ground gets any more radiation than 50% of normal sunshine. All that was worked out by O'Neill in the 80's. Old news.
  • I would like a Ring around the earth like they had in the series Gundam 00. With three main towers to beyond Geo sync, and fricking huge!!! Of course if one of the towers should fail.... LOOK OUT BELOW!!!!

    Don't build cities in the orbital direction of the towers on the ground, cause it sucks to be them.....

    • by EdZ (755139) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:05PM (#30849328)
      As with almost every other Gundam, the designs were cribbed from actual research. 0079 had the O'Neill Cylinders (with higher spin rates for dramatic effect), Wing had pairs of linked counter-rotating ring stations (artificially lit rather than using chevron mirrors, IIRC), Turn-A had a hypervelocity skyhook (and a linac boost up to it), 00 had the aforementioned solar power ring concept, as well as a slightly upsized Bernoulli Sphere station.
  • maturity? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @02:52PM (#30849158) Homepage

    It may be close to proving is viability, but there's no way anyone has any business calling this not-even-prototyped tech "mature."

  • Umm.... (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by ExE122 (954104) *

    system would collect the Sun's energy and transmit it to Earth via an infrared laser, to provide electricity

    To "provide electricity" or to "discuss the location of the hidden rebel base"?

    Is anyone else scared?

  • Ooh, scary (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Deosyne (92713) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @02:55PM (#30849188)

    I don't know how so many people are able to drive in traffic, given how scared people get by the most unlikely things. Only 30% of the Earth's surface is land, and we only inhabit a fraction of that. I'll take my chances. Let's see what this tech can actually do.

  • Why is it that we can put something in orbit to avoid the atmosphere losses, but then beam it down through the same atmosphere they are avoiding in order to use it on the ground.

    Seems to me like you're going to have the same parasitic losses.

    • by Maury Markowitz (452832) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:05PM (#30849326) Homepage

      > Seems to me like you're going to have the same parasitic losses.

      Some wavelengths get through clouds better. Microwaves are best. Given that it's warmer on cloudy nights due to IR reflection, the IR doesn't strike me as a good selection - perhaps there's a few holes in there they want to use.

      Not that it makes a difference. For the price of the rocket you need to launch one panel, you can buy hundreds of panels. That will generate hundreds of times the power. It's an utterly stupid concept.

      Maury

      • by Salgak1 (20136) <`ten.ysaekaeps' `ta' `kaglas'> on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:37PM (#30849806) Homepage
        Actually, the efficiency comes if you build in-orbit from indigenous materials. The classic powersat concept generally involves lunar regolith mining, launch to low Lunar orbit via magnetic mass-driver, and solar smelting in orbit.

        The first one, and associated infrastructure, costs a fortune. However, after that, your only costs are ongoing personnel costs, O&M., and the cost of new ground stations. Because the powersat-production infrastructure remains intact in orbit.

        Additionally, you don't have to use silicon or other semi-conductor photocells for power: you could set up mirror arrays to concentrate sunlight on a working fluid, to heat it, and run the resulting heated gas through turbines for power generation. Obviously, you'd need a closed-loop system for that, but with large mirror arrays, behind each would be an area completely out of sunlight, and ideal for heat sinks for cooling the gases back to fluid for re-use in the cycle. . .

        The economics of payback are actually not that bad: ~20 years for capital payback, and all profit from that point on. . .

        • by aminorex (141494)

          I love the way everyone says "Lunar regolith" instead of "moon rocks". It makes you sound so much smarter.

          • by Salgak1 (20136)
            Because the typical concept involved scooping lunar "soil", rather than rocks. Easier to compact for mass-driver launch, easier to handle as it melts, and easy to mine: just scrape it up.

            And because "regolith" is the correct technical term, "soil" typically implies a rock product decayed via water, chemical, and organic processes. Regolith is just a finely divided, heterogenous rock-derived product, with grain size typically less than a centimeter, lying on top of a base layer of solid rock.

            And, final

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Not that it makes a difference. For the price of the rocket you need to launch one panel, you can buy hundreds of panels. That will generate hundreds of times the power. It's an utterly stupid concept.

        That doesn't make sense. The whole point of putting them in space is that they work better there. So if you had 1 panel in space and 100 on the ground, I don't know what the real ratio would be but it'd clearly not be 1:100.

        Astrium isn't exactly a fly by night outfit. If they think they can get the numbers to

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by dgatwood (11270)

        Hundreds? Try tens of thousands. The cheapest launch vehicle that can put a satellite in orbit that I could find costs $12 million per launch. For that price, I can buy almost 22,000 Kyocera solar panels that produce 205 watts apiece. That's at retail with the only discount being from buying them in 20-packs. That's approximately 4.5 megawatts of power generating capacity that could be paid for just by the cost of the launch. Even if you could get 100% efficiency in your transfer (impossible), this wo

        • for civilian use, no (Score:3, Interesting)

          by zogger (617870)

          All your math and reasoning is sound, this proposal makes *zero* economic sense for the general civilian electricity market (most cases). But I think, from what they are shooting for as customers eventually, that this won't matter as much, the cost part. They are defense and space contractors and what they want to build is a near-virtual instant completely mobile power plant, and sell that service to governments/militaries. ex: All of a sudden they need a megawatt or three of reliable power over here behind

        • First things first, the possibility of a pump and dump is definitely there. However...

          http://www.permanent.com/p-sps.htm [permanent.com]

          Have a look at that and some of the links presented. The launch costs are relevant only to the equipment needed for further manufacturing. The rest of the material can be found in space for orders of magnitude less investment.
          If solar wind turns out to be enough of a problem, then a minimal network of GEO relay satellites could receive high-intensity beams from non-GEO power satellites and

      • by BitZtream (692029)

        Microwave seems like it would take a hell of a loss from the moisture in the air being heated.

    • by natehoy (1608657) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:24PM (#30849620) Journal

      Well, yes and no. They are going to have SOME parasitic losses, but certainly not the same ones.

      Let's assume they do this in the desert somewhere, where there are only exceptionally rare clouds in the way and parasitic losses are relatively low (both for land-based solar and orbital solar). The parasitic losses attributable to the atmosphere would be approximately the same, except that the satellite doing the actual transmission to Earth would likely be in a geosynchronous orbit exactly over the receiving target, which means you'll have minimal atmospheric interference. I'm not an atmospheric expert, but I thought there was also some benefit to having a stronger/denser beam trying to penetrate the atmosphere (tended to have lower loss than a less-coherent beam).

      Add to that the fact that the actual collector (or collectors) can be in a different orbit where there is no loss of sunlight, ever, and can be positioned so that the solar panels are getting maximum solar efficiency continuously. The best of Earth-based solar arrays need some sort of motorized mechanism to keep them pointed at the Sun during the course of the day, and will get maybe 10-11 hours of decent sun and only a few hours of peak sun in a given day. You easily double, or more, your yield from such a system as opposed to building it on Earth. Solar collector arrays can be built with almost no support materials and can be made FAR larger than you could possibly do practically on Earth. And, other than a collecting station here and there, no one has to give up viable, farmable, or environmentally sensitive land.

      Sure, it's going to be expensive to put the little devils in orbit, but you can build them using fewer materials, they'll run at peak capacity continuously, and no one ever complained that the Great Left-Pawed Spotted Marmaset was found only at Lagrange-2 so you'll have to stop construction.

    • by hardburn (141468)

      "Efficiency" is the wrong term. You should be thinking in terms of absolute energy amounts. Which one gets you more power: 10W of input harnessed at 90% efficiency, or 100W of input harnessed at 10% efficiency?

      Yes, there are parasitic losses. IIRC, solar panels themselves are slightly less efficient in space (but I wasn't able to quickly track down a reference), and then you have beam and collector losses. The gain is that you automatically get almost double the energy from not being in the Earth's shadow f

  • Why use lasers? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by NotBornYesterday (1093817) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @02:55PM (#30849194) Journal
    I thought microwave transmission was the way to go, and they had worked out how to avoid accidentally frying non-target stuff on the ground.
    • That is precisely what I was thinking. Converting solar energy to electrical energy and then back into infrared and finally converting that infrared light back into electricity sounds to me to be extremely inefficient. Secondly, the infrared laser would probably need to be pretty powerful to transmit the power to the surface of the Earth which seems dangerous as well. It only takes a laser that has a power of a few watts/cm^2 to set fire to things and here we're talking about much much more power being s

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by bughunter (10093)

        There are large windows in the atmospheric infrared absorption spectrum [wikipedia.org] suitable for transmitting IR signals and power.

        It's not transmission efficiency so much as conversion efficiency, and overall system cost. IR is about equivalent to microwave, and getting better, whereas microwave is essentially mature.

        Microwave comes to mind first because back in the 1950's and 60's when these ideas were first proposed, microwave was the best tech, but not any longer.

    • It is easier to get bonus grant money from the War industry if you have the possibility of repurposing your power plant into a ship-sinking, building-burning space laser.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        That's all well and good, but where the hell are they going to get a shark big enough to mount such a large laser?
      • by skine (1524819)

        mmm...popcorn...

      • by Salgak1 (20136)
        Who says you need light to do it ? A sufficiently-focused microwave beam would do the trick, AND be invisible. All you have to do is package it as the Orbital Death-Ray, and . . . Profit!!!
    • Wouldn’t it be better, to just shoot a huge parabolic mirror into space? Weighs less, easily replaced, and if properly focused (perhaps with a lightweight fresnel lens at the right position, it could e.g. heat a large bulb of water on earth, or something like that.

      But, yes, I don’t know how much the athmosphere would filter them.
      But I also don’t know it the sun actually emits other types of waves too, that are strong enough to be used. Because it doesn’t have to be a mirror for light

    • Re:Why use lasers? (Score:4, Informative)

      by bughunter (10093) <<ten.knilhtrae> <ta> <retnuhgub>> on Thursday January 21, 2010 @04:10PM (#30850284) Journal

      Why use lasers?

      Conversion efficiency. Lifetime. Environmental suitability. Potential for technology insertion and incremental improvements.

      The magnetron, while efficient at converting electrical power to microwave, is being surpassed by the VECSEL solid-state IR laser in efficiency. Both are about 70-75% efficient, but magnetrons are a rather old, very mature technology whereas solid state lasers are still maturing. Magnetrons are at their limit; solid-state lasers still have room for improvement.

      And solid state devices can more easily be made to have a long service lifetime and to tolerate being shaken nearly to death on top of a rocket than magnetrons can. These are satellite applications, so reliability, service life and ruggedness are very important requirements.

      For conversion back to electrons, I'm not so sure of that trade, but I trust they factored that in. IR is quite suitable mainly because a microwave transducers have some fundamental drawbacks. A microwave receiver is a bolometer, or bolometer array, which works best when incident power is focused on a nonlinear element, so some sort of refractive "lens" element will be needed, most likely an array of refractive concentrators. In the infrared, however, photovoltaic cells can be distributed over a wide area - and again, they are a maturing technology that is getting cheaper and more efficient with time... all in all I'm not surprised they chose IR.

    • It probably is, if people didn't get emotionally over-wrought at the thought of it being Evil(tm) food-nuking radiation and go all NIMBY on you. All they have to do is keep the power-density low enough so that any critters that stray into the power-beam can radiate the heat-gain away. The antenna is tuned so it absorbs the energy from the power beam, yet only shades a small percentage of the sunlight; my guess is the area under the antenna will become a de facto wildlife refuge for small animals shielded fr

  • by presidenteloco (659168) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @02:57PM (#30849218)

    Ok, I know this would displace some fossil fuel energy use (that
    is increasing the greenhouse effect and trapping heat on Earth.)

    But beaming electromagnetic energy (infrared, microwaves, whatever)
    from part of the Sun's radiation that was going to miss Earth in the
    first place seems to be adding energy to the Earth (and thus eventually
    adding heat to the Earth, as the organized EM energy degrades
    (gets used and entropized).

    Has anyone done the calculations to make sure that the GHG emission
    replacement factor of this new energy (thus its reduction of heat trapping)
    is more than the brand new heat it is adding to the Earth system?

    • Not if that heat is being turned into energy. Depends on how much waste heat is produced by this, but since we haven't tried it, we don't know.

      • by natehoy (1608657)

        And when you use that energy, what do you get? Heat. All energy eventually becomes heat. This will be a net heat increase on Earth.

        Fortunately, it's a net heat increase that doesn't also release heat-trapping pollutants or heat-absorbing particulates like fossil fuels do, so the excess heat will have the opportunity to radiate out of the atmosphere.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      It will certainly add much less "heat" to Earth then the majority of ways in which we are obtaining energy, for given energy amount.

      The reason is that in case of such satellite system (or pretty much any "renewable" energy source), the added energy comes only from losses or the final work done with the energy.

      Whereas in the case of fossil fuels the most significant, by far, addition of energy to Earth comes not from losses or work output, but from changing the atmosphere, in a way that it captures more heat

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      As you say, the problem is not extra energy being added to Earth, but the reduction in the amount of heat energy being allowed to leave earth.

      If by adding the energy in the proposed manner we can stop the extra CO2 from being added to the atmosphere, then likely the extra energy would just radiate into space.

      And since you're wondering, the amount of extra energy being grabbed pales in comparison to the amount of energy already hitting the earth. These panels aren't going to be even a tiny fraction o
      • by tagno25 (1518033)

        And since you're wondering, the amount of extra energy being grabbed pales in comparison to the amount of energy already hitting the earth. These panels aren't going to be even a tiny fraction of the size of the earth.

        Why not have two panels, one at ~.5AU and one near one of the poles of earth, both orbiting the sun. Panel one sends a large amount of energy to panel two which then transmits it to a station in a relatively unpopulated location.

        • not quite sure what you're responding too but here goes:

          The power needs to be beamed to a location reasonably close to where it will be used. The transmission from the ground station out to the end-users still has the same loss rates as current power plants.

          My point was that unless the solar panels are the size of a continent they aren't going to be adding significantly more energy to the earth than is already being added right now.
        • Why not have two panels, one at ~.5AU and one near one of the poles of earth, both orbiting the sun. Panel one sends a large amount of energy to panel two which then transmits it to a station in a relatively unpopulated location.

          Because the panel at 0.5AU would be moving relative to Earth?

          Because sometimes it would be behind the sun, and sometimes it would be 1.5 AU from the Earth? And most of the time it would be ~1 AU from Earth?

          Because maintenance on something that far away would be anightmare?

          And be

    • by jhfry (829244)

      I started to do the calculations, and the numbers became so huge that I decided just to put it this way...

      Such an enormous amount of solar energy strikes the earth already, that you could beam our entire energy supply in and it would be absorbed by a rounding error when calculating the increase in solar energy caused by the technology. And it would be easily offset by the reduction in energy released by fossil fuel use.

  • by Maury Markowitz (452832) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:02PM (#30849282) Homepage

    Just do the math, it doesn't work. The cost of launch utterly WIPES OUT any hope of income. Look, rockets are expensive, electricity isn't. That's all there is to it.

    Want numbers? Fine:

    http://matter2energy.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/space-power/

    • But were you factoring in the amazing new underwater space cannon launching system?

      http://gizmodo.com/5449133/jules-verne-was-almost-right [gizmodo.com]

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      At $5000 per pound maybe. How about at $250 per pound?

      http://science.slashdot.org/story/10/01/16/0015238/A-Space-Cannon-That-Might-Actually-Work?from=rss [slashdot.org]

      • I'm sure you could build some really cool mirrors to focus solar power on to some soalr panels for less than that.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        > How about at $250 per pound?

        DO THE MATH. Sheesh.

        The panels I use are 20 kg for 200 to 220 watts. That's 10 watts per kg, or 5 watts per pound.

        In Toronto, you get 1250 kWh per year 1000 kW installed. So about 1.2 wh per w.

        So that's about 6 wh per pound.

        I get paid the utterly ridiculous price of 80 cents a kWh for this power. That's 0.08 cents per wh.

        So that's just under 50 cents a year per pound.

        With me so far? Ok, let's keep going...

        On Earth I have an expected lifetime of at least 20 years, and 25 is m

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      well electricity is only 'not expensive' if you don't account for the 'cost' of the CO2 (and other pollutants) being released. Just like if I dump my waste into the river, the 'cost' isn't borne by me, but by anyone downstream. To me it's cheap.

      What is the cost of global warming? How much do you amortize against the fossil fuels? We frankly don't know yet, but many indications are that it's going to be a massively significant amount. If 400 million people need to relocate because of sea-level rise
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        > don't account for the 'cost' of the CO2

        Which might be a good argument (but isn't) if you're comparing a solar panel in space with a coal plant on Earth. But I'm comparing a solar panel in space with a solar panel on Earth. There's no hidden cost to hide behind.

        Besides, have you ever seen a rocket? Not exactly green power!

        Maury

        • by tagno25 (1518033)

          Besides, have you ever seen a rocket? Not exactly green power!

          Maury

          Maybe if it is a solid state rocket, but aren't most rockets liquid fuel now a days and isn't the liquid hydrogen and oxygen?

          • > isn't the liquid hydrogen and oxygen

            At huge PSI's and temperatures. The exhaust will rot out your lungs. Besides, every major launch platform also uses solids.

            Maury

            • by idontgno (624372)

              The exhaust will rot out your lungs.

              Steam? At any distance that the exhaust is hot and dense enough to be a breathing hazard, you're already in trouble from blast and acoustic effects. Or are you claiming the exhaust contains high and persistent quantities of hydrogen peroxide?

              Besides, every major launch platform also uses solids.

              Close. Most of the current (e.g., ATLAS V) and future (e.g., Rus-M, Angara) heavylift liquid-only EELVs are RP-1/LOX (i.e., kerosene) lower stage designs, so from a carbon foot

          • Maybe if it is a solid state rocket, but aren't most rockets liquid fuel now a days and isn't the liquid hydrogen and oxygen?

            Yes and no, in that order. Most rockets are liquid fuel (but most of them have solid boosters in one form or another), but most don't use H2/O2. Try kerosene/O2.

        • I'm comparing a solar panel in space with a solar panel on Earth

          Fair enough. But then you also need to factor in the cost of either a night time power supply or energy storage capabilities.

          Plus, since northern latitudes don't really get great sun a good percent of the year, you'll need a way to provide them with the added power they'll need.

          and cloudy places, power during dust storms, or anything else that might obstruct the terrestrial panels.

          I agree it's a *very* ambitious plan that may or ma
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Launch costs are dropping and will continue to do so as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and other commercial vendors start to compete in the industry. I don't know that the savings will be enough. But it is worth keeping in mind that space is going to become quite a bit more accessible in the next five to ten years. Also, if you took the time to assemble the orbital solar panels in a modular manner, the way it was done with the ISS (but using more robotic construction techniques in place of human ones), you could
    • Assuming we require rocket fuel...? Perhaps the next rockets that go up would require electrical energy that is provided by the already sent up unlimited/free energy devices we sent out initially?

      Electricity isn't "expensive" but can be costly in other ways. Besides, this provides potential for unlimited energy, imagine what projects could be done where energy was not a design concern?
  • Assuming this can be done efficiently enough to take large scale, wouldn't this actually contribute to global warming? We're taking energy that normally would not hit the planet, beaming it down to use as a cheap source of electricity, which then gets turn into heat.

    Right? Or would we radiate enough heat out of the atmosphere if we could stop using fossil fuels to negate it?
    • by sznupi (719324)

      Global warming doesn't come from the energy we use. It comes from the massive amounts of energy from the Sun that doesn't escape back, because the composition of the atmosphere has changed; while conceptually this system would do something similar, it would have insanely higher ratio of the energy we use to the energy that simply gets trapped in the atmosphere due to its operation.

    • Assuming this can be done efficiently enough to take large scale, wouldn't this actually contribute to global warming?

      It's better than burning billions of tons of dirty coal to produce the same amount of power. Any extra warming from making use of this energy is completely dwarfed by several orders of magnitude by the warming caused by the CO2 produced by burning an amount of coal to replace the power from the solar power station.

  • Makes no sense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jpmorgan (517966) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:06PM (#30849346) Homepage

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: orbital solar makes no economic sense. You get 4 times the power capacity for a given amount of solar panel surface area, compared to building in a desert somewhere, at a mere thousand times the cost! Maybe someday it will make sense, but not any time soon.

    Now there is an exception to this: if you've got an efficient system for sending power down to a ground station then there is potential for power distribution to remote sites. The US military would love this, as it would eliminate much of the insatiable thirst for diesel in places like Afghanistan and simplify their logistics enormously. But even for this why would you want to build a big heavy satellite with huge solar panels? Just build a satellite that picks up power from a base station and beams it back down. Simpler, cheaper and more reliable.

    • Not that I'm really disagreeing with you, but you'll actually get around 8+ times the power capacity. 4 times for being above the atmosphere, 2 times for not having night to worry about (depending on your orbit). Throw in a bit more for cloudy days (assuming their transfer mechanism goes through with minimal losses. And combine that with the the kinds of super-efficient panels that are used for space technology, and you'll get a pretty significant increase.

      Two things stand in the way as I see it. 1) La

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        > Not that I'm really disagreeing with you, but you'll actually get around 8+ times the power capacity

        Bzzzt, wrong. Power density is about 15% greater in space. You get 2 times the hours of sunlight (day, night). You get about 20% more "clear sky" (Sites in Nevada have over 80% clear weather).

        So it's more like 4 times, ignoring the 50% conversion and shipping costs, and the fact that the panels last only 12 years instead of 20+. If you consider those alone, a panel on the ground will generate some signif

        • by mstahl (701501)

          You get about 20% more "clear sky" (Sites in Nevada have over 80% clear weather).

          Are you really arguing against orbital solar by saying there's more clouds in space?

      • by ppanon (16583)

        Except for the day/night part, it should be possible to use the high efficiency solar panels on the ground, using mirrors to concentrate the light down to be just as, if not more intense, than in orbit. I can't imagine mirrors and a tracking mechanism are more expensive than a launch.

        If you're using the mirrors, then the mirrors have to move which means that

        • Your mirrors need to be on a frame which can stand the accelerative stresses from tracking, which leads to more mass that needs to be lifted.
        • The mirr
  • Though it seems like a cool idea, I cannot see how getting a power source in an unregulated (no laws) area like space would be beneficial.

    Who's gonna be the first bean counter to get fired because he/she signed up for this new service then was unable to perform normal duties when the system was accidentally hit by a rock and there's no backup.
  • space power (Score:3, Informative)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @03:11PM (#30849420) Journal

    It costs roughly 10,000$/kg to launch all the materials used in these orbital solar power stations. There is simply no way that it is cheaper to launch solar panels into orbit at that cost than to build a set of mirrors to focus solar energy on to solar panels or using it to crack water using one of the many thermochemical cycles that exist and using that to make fuel or run the produced Hydrogen through a fuel cell.

  • Why this is still a dumb idea:
    1. Cost/kWh: From the article "We have reached a point where, in the next five years, we could build something which is in the order of 10-20 kW to transmit useful energy to the ground." Are you kidding me? 10-20kW? Pfft. That is very little power -- thats like powering 3 or 4 houses. The cost of the energy, materials, and time to design, build, launch, maintain (ground based monitoring, ground based photodiodes used to capture the laser light), a system like this would pr
    • Space Garbage: Do we really need more junk in geosynchronous orbit? Launching satellites may create space junk.

      I did this calculation too. For every 100 kWp you launch, you have a 40% chance of causing a Kessler Syndrome.

      Maury

  • Kind of a waste (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Thursday January 21, 2010 @05:01PM (#30851206) Journal
    If EADS and the others had a brain, they would skip the beaming of power down, and instead developed a means of sending power to orbit first (useful for sending power to the ISS or other sats; it will require ultra caps up there), AND develop a way to relay the energy. The relay would be useful on a plane for the DOD (sending power to forward bases) as well as for disaster areas. FOr example, think Haiti. Think Katrina. Think Ca last week. By being able to put a drone up with infrared sending power to it, and then beam it down via multiple signals, it would allow real power tools to be brought in. We have seen the walking skeletons (aka alien), and the ability to lift things. Think of how useful that concept would be in Haiti right now.

    Once you get beaming of power around, THEN, it becomes useful to put solar cells into space. Personally, I would put it around mars and the moon first. Have 2 or three sats providing power, to beam down to missions with ultra-caps.
    • by aminorex (141494)

      Indeed there's a huge amount of natural gas being wasted in Alaska because it's not economical to transport. If you could run a generating station on the north shore, and beam it with no effective losses to aircraft and shipping traffic worldwide, you could run the entire global transportation system with essentially no carbon emissions.

  • Nearly thirty years ago, I spoke to someone at a meeting from the Space Sciences Inst, I believe it was. IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, he told me that the environmental impact study had already been done several years before.

    What he also told me was that they were NOT talking about megawatts/meter^2, but *watts*/m^2. That's not enough to cook a buzzard flying over it. They were talking about large arrays of receivers.

    But that's too complicated, and you can't make movies with laser beams flashing through vacuum wit

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