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Earth Space Technology

This Satellite Could Be Beaming Solar Power Down From Space By 2025 245

Posted by timothy
from the your-popcorn-isn't-safe dept.
Daniel_Stuckey writes "A NASA veteran, aerospace entrepreneur, and space-based solar power (SBSP) expert, [John] Mankins designed the world's first practical orbital solar plant. It's called the Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large PHased Array, or SPS-ALPHA for short. If all goes to plan, it could be launched as early as 2025, which is sooner than it sounds when it comes to space-based solar power timelines. Scientists have been aware of the edge the "space-down" approach holds over terrestrial panels for decades. An orbiting plant would be unaffected by weather, atmospheric filtering of light, and the sun's inconvenient habit of setting every evening. SBSP also has the potential to dramatically increase the availability of renewable energy."
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This Satellite Could Be Beaming Solar Power Down From Space By 2025

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  • by kruach aum (1934852) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @06:45AM (#44668475)
    A satellite directly beaming solar power down from space? We've created... the moon.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It basically works like Ion Canon and it will accelerate global warming and destroy the receiver station.

    • by You're All Wrong (573825) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @07:26AM (#44668605)
      The moon's too lossy, and keeps having its time of the month where it's completely useless. For getting solar power beamed down from space, I'd propose using ... the sun!

      I'm curious - how much taxpayer funding has this received? Is this just another one of the "ride the replace-fossil-fuel-usage bandwagon" schemes?
      • by mcgrew (92797) * on Sunday August 25, 2013 @08:58AM (#44668841) Homepage Journal

        I'm curious - how much taxpayer funding has this received?

        Less than a day's worth of military funding, I'm sure. And this is not an expenditure, it's an investment.

        • by Dereck1701 (1922824) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @09:55AM (#44669025)

          "Less than a day's worth"

          You''re being WAY to generous, the US military spending for 2012, ignoring all of side costs (possibly as high as $500 Billion) is roughly $900 Billion dollars. Broken down to a "By Day" cost it is $2.46 Billion per day, with that kind of money you could probably finish development and put a significant amount of this concepts hardware into orbit. If any taxpayer money was used on this study it would probably be measured in seconds of military spending (~$28,500 per second) at most.

        • And this is not an expenditure, it's an investment.

          Nope. If tax dollars are being spent, it is an expenditure. If it was an investment, it would be funded by private investors risking their own money.

          • by TapeCutter (624760) on Monday August 26, 2013 @02:04AM (#44674425) Journal
            Learn English, what you are talking about is a particular type of investment, specifically private financial investments that have a monetary return. Governments do that all the time and have massive traditional investment portfolios, but they also make "investments" in infrastructure and such where the returns are meaused by how much they benifit society. For instance the government may choose to invest in a (say) new bridge, the ROI will be measured in reduced travel times and transport costs, the ROI cannot be measured in dollars because there is no such profit to be had. A private bridge would charge a toll to make money and therefore is of less benifit to the community since the toll redirects the bulk of the transport cost savings into the bridge owners pocket. You see the difference? - Government invests in society, private enterprise profits from society, both methods can be implemented with varying degrees of success depending on circumstance, neither group has a monopoly on inefficentcy.

            IMHO, the single biggest problem in the US is that there are way too many people like you who reduce ALL government activity to a single simple minded complaint; "Waaaa.....they're spending my money...Waaaaa!"
    • Moon, Death Star, whichever.

  • lol (Score:5, Interesting)

    by etash (1907284) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @06:49AM (#44668491)
    how exactly can it "revolutionize disaster relief" when it needs an almost 40km^2 (6-8km in diameter) receiver array on the ground to get the power beamed from the satellite. Disaster relief means fast deployment. How fast can you deploy a 40km^2 grid on the ground?

    not even mentioning the fact that if you had 40km^2 of land you could just set solar panels there and do the thing for yourself with much less energy losses.
    • by BlueMonk (101716)
      That does seem odd. I wonder if the 40km^2 is only required for large scale optimal receivers whereas if your power requirements were less or more of an emergency, less efficient receivers could be justified at a size that would be more portable and temporary.
      • by etash (1907284)
        the large grid was - as the article says - not for better efficiency but in order to avoid the energy-beam weapon thing. by design the power beamed down spreads out a lot and thus requires such a large collector.
        • by amiga3D (567632)

          Which makes me wonder, could this be used as a weapon as well? Why not design it so the beam can be focused and used as a death ray? This will enable DOD funding which should bring it into production ASAP. A dual purpose device for power generation or weapon of mass destruction.

  • by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojo@@@world3...net> on Sunday August 25, 2013 @06:51AM (#44668499) Homepage

    Japan is already working on a prototype solar power satellite. The ESA has an active project. I'd hope NASA could work with them on this one.

  • Nope. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 25, 2013 @06:52AM (#44668507)

    The energy needed to put solar cells into orbit is not recouped over their lifetime outside the protecting atmosphere. Solar cells are used on spacecraft out of necessity, not because they're cost efficient.

    I know this is an unpopular view on Slashdot, where atomic energy fans come together to bash all other technologies, but solar cells work fine on the ground. You can fill the supply gaps with conventional power plants and still come out far ahead CO2-wise compared to the current power mix. Production has hardly scaled up, but solar cells are already competitive in some markets. The point of these stories about satellite solar farms is to give you the impression that there needs to be some extraordinary investment or innovation before solar power can be used. That's a lie, designed to put a drag on solar power. Solar power is ready to be used, you just have to do it.

    • Re:Nope. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mark99 (459508) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @07:07AM (#44668547) Journal

      Agree with the poster. I figure solar cells in space will not trump solar cells on the ground until we dramatically lower the cost of delivery to orbit. At the moment we SpaceX is quoting 4300 USD/Kg to orbit on a Falcon 9 (1.1 - still waiting on maiden flight Sept5), and maybe down to 1200 UDS/Kg for the not yet built or demonstrated Falcon Heavy. And that is to LEO, Solar Cells probably need GTO which is about twice as expensive. I can't imagine a space based array can be competitive at those prices.
      Now if someone built a rail-gun based launcher, then maybe it could make sense.
      And as AC mentioned, we are in the midst of a ground based solar cell revolution right now. Very cool...

      • by vtcodger (957785)

        I agree that putting a solar collector in orbit would be extraordinarily expensive using any currently extant technology. As would be maintaining it. On top of which, what would the point be? Solar energy can be collected on the surface at a small fraction of the cost and a technician can drive or walk to any component needing repair, Sure, a ground based facility might have to be larger than a space based facility, because of atrmospheric and sun angle losses. But not enough to make much difference?

        BT

        • by mark99 (459508)

          An ion thruster I suppose would do the trick. Of course it would run out of Xenon after awhile, but ion engines have the highest fuel to force ratios short of a solar sail.
          Actually come to think of it I am not sure it is much of a problem. If you were in a geosynchronous orbit, surely the solar pressure would push you away half the time, but push you back the other half, right?

        • Re:Nope. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by ChrisMaple (607946) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @09:51AM (#44669015)

          Although it may not be economical, there are significant advantages in space vs ground. Average daily insolation is at least 4X better. Because putting the space panels in place is so expensive, the fractional increase in cost of using high-tech panels is smaller: a 60% power/area (power/mass) improvement over single-crystal silicon.

          As long as the solar pressure on the installation is less than the Earth's gravitational pull, it should be possible to design an orbit that will keep it in place. After all, when the installation is nearer to the sun than the Earth, the sun's radiation is pushinf it toward the Earth.

          • > Average daily insolation is at least 4X better

            And transmission losses take 1/2 of that.

            Cell lifetime takes another 1/2.

            > the fractional increase in cost of using high-tech panels is smaller

            That is the most bizarre argument I've heard in a while.

            "No one can possibly afford this car, so we may as well make it out of solid gold."

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        If we had a space gun or a space elevator or space manufacturing then it would make sense. But you know what might make more sense? Nuclear plants in space, beaming down their power. Then you don't have to deal with all that surface area.

        On the other hand, a space-based array could use roll-out thin film panels, because they don't have to resist gravity...

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        The JAXA and ESA plans both assume that only small scale systems will be used at first, probably for disaster relief and maybe military use (powering military devices, not as a weapon itself). When the cost of orbiting stuff comes down it will then move on to large scale commercial operation.

        Skimming TFA it appears that this is how NASA sees it as well.

    • Re:Nope. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 25, 2013 @07:16AM (#44668565)

      Here's some hard numbers on "traditional" approaches to solar ground vs space:
      http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/03/space-based-solar-power/ [ucsd.edu]
      "You can even throw in batteries in the ground system without exceeding the space cost, and all the reasons for going to space have melted away."

      It would be interesting if TFA had some hard numbers to compare against in terms of generation capacity vs launch costs vs upkeep/replacement schedule... Can't find anything myself though...

      • Although the costs are hard to tie down, your citation seems to imply a disadvantage of space solar over ground of at least 4X, and some of the assumptions are open to challenge. Substantial improvements in a variety of technologies would be needed for space to be as practical as ground.

        Still, I like the idea of at least doing some trial to work out bugs and make a standard for future experiments to be compared against.

        • "Substantial improvements in a variety of technologies would be needed for space to be as practical as ground."

          This is the lottery fallacy.

          For argument's sake, let's say there are 1000 technologies in an SPS system - rocket engines, solar cells, lightweight aerostructures, turbo pumps, new inverter topologies, etc.

          The vast majority of the list of possible improvements improves both the ground and space-based systems. For instance, if you improve the performance of solar cells, then both the ground and space

      • "microwave link to the ground. "

        And there' the problem with his argument. Taking existing tech and retro fitting to the application. I rather have batteries constructed in space (via mining asteroids) and 'drop shipping' them to the ground. Then being recycled when used up. Hopefully by the time we have too much to recycle, space elevators will be created of the cost of shipping stuff back into space is 1/20th the current costs.

        The current thoughts about space based power does not take an integrated approac

    • by Zumbs (1241138)

      You can fill the supply gaps with conventional power plants and still come out far ahead CO2-wise compared to the current power mix.

      Not to mention that the periods where most power is being used is during the day, where solar power produce power, so solar power fits well with our current power consumption.

      Production has hardly scaled up, but solar cells are already competitive in some markets. The point of these stories about satellite solar farms is to give you the impression that there needs to be some extraordinary investment or innovation before solar power can be used. That's a lie, designed to put a drag on solar power. Solar power is ready to be used, you just have to do it.

      There is one issue with solar power (and a number of other renewable energy sources): They are not stable. Power output is dependent on weather patterns. Solar power has the additional issue that there is no output at night. The satellite solar farms is one way of getting around it. Another is to improve technology to store power, or t

    • by khallow (566160)

      The energy needed to put solar cells into orbit is not recouped over their lifetime outside the protecting atmosphere.

      It doesn't take that much energy. I think it's more to make them in the first place. Well, maybe I'll run some numbers to see what the relative costs are.

    • I will believe in solar power when my electrical power company comes to me and wishes to rent my roof for a dollar a year to place solar cells there. When they think it is a great investment so will I.
    • by tmosley (996283)
      That is why you don't lift the panels. Rather, you lift the equipment that needs to be built on Earth while sourcing that materials from somewhere off of earth. It's pretty low energy to get to geostationary from the moon. A captured asteroid would be even better. I wonder if it would be easy to make ultra-pure silicon in space?
      • Look, we can''t even manufacture duct tape in orbit yet. Much less pure silicon.

        I hope you're a very patient fellow.

    • "I know this is an unpopular view on Slashdot, where atomic energy fans come together to bash all other technologies"

      It's the same everywhere. And I really don't understand why. All logic suggests nuclear supporters should be equally supportive of solar as well. Bunker mentality?

      http://matter2energy.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/why-solar-is-nuclears-best-friend/

  • Energy is life and civilization. Balancing an industrial society on the razor edge of a single point of failure is itself a 'fail'. Whether the failure would occur technically or politically is of little consequence.

    The catch-22 is impossible to avoid. If orbital solar doesn't scale then it is a waste of resource, if it does then it's a single point of (catastrophic) failure.

    Terrestrial power plants can be replicated easily, hardened from sabotage, operated and maintained within many sovereign countries at

    • I agree about single points of failure, but I think some of your points are a bit of a stretch.
      However, storing excess energy using hydrogen or molten salt might be good enough to keep things ticking over until repairs are done. But of course this is just a band-aid solution.
      But obviously solar plants would be great for refining ore mined in space before it is plunged down to earth where energy is more expensive (or it could be manufactured further in space, eventually).
  • off the hands of Bond villains and other evil master minds...
  • by sjwt (161428)

    In no way is this a "Lets put up a microwave beam weapon satellite and pretend that we are beaming power down by installing a secret Nuke reactor under a big dish."

  • "convert that sunlight across a large radio frequency aperture into a coherent microwave beam and transmit the power to markets on Earth"

    What could go wrong when pointing a large microwave beam at Earth?
  • by MetricT (128876) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @08:56AM (#44668825) Homepage

    Space-based solar doesn't make a lot of sense until we get a whole lot closed to a Kardashev Type I civilization than we actuallly are. There's simply no way that firing panels into space on a $100 million dollar rocket is more cost effective than sticking them on the ground where Bob the Electrician can install and maintenance them.

    It does make sense though in some *very* limit circumstances. If you frequently work in areas that have no power infrastructure, and can afford the jaw-dropping premium of space-based power. Those two facts suggest this is the public face of some kind of military or intelligence project.

  • By the time you've taken into account the costs of launching this thing into space (and maintaining it) won't regular solar power work out as being more efficient? Alternatively, what about spending the money on developing more efficient solar panels?
  • "no night" orbit? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dltaylor (7510) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @09:25AM (#44668915)

    The only orbits that have no period when the sun is blocked by Earth's shadow ("night") are polar (remember the pictures of sunrise over the Earth shot from space by various astro/cosmonauts?). No single ground station could receive the power.

    Also, there would be considerable photon pressure pushing the satellite(s) away from the Sun and, hence, Earth, plus gravitational drag attempting to pull the orbits around he Earth. Not a big deal for a short-term recon satellite, but these would be intended to there for years. Any of the rocket scientists out there know if the polar orbits are even vaguely stable, or will the satellite need boatloads of fuel to stay where it's needed. Of course, the beam of Earthbound power is a thruster, too, raising the orbit.

    Put the collector at the Eath-Sol L1 and you've got to have REALLY good beam control to keep from raising the temperature of the entire Earth.

    Sounds more like weapon than a power source to me.

    • by MattskEE (925706)

      What you say would be true for a low alititude orbit.

      According to Tom Murphy's analysis: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/03/space-based-solar-power/ [ucsd.edu] a satellite in geosynchronous orbit is so far enough away that it is only shaded for a very short period of time per day, and then only when it is near the equinox so that the earth is directly between the sun and the satellite, resulting in about 0.7% shaded time on average.

      Or course at the end of the day the economics still don't seem to work out for

  • JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) has been working on such a system from a number of years and plans to have 1-gigawatt space solar power system operating around 2030. http://www.jaxa.jp/article/interview/vol53/index_e.html [www.jaxa.jp]
  • "the receiver on Earth will be large—about 6 to 8 km in diameter, positioned 5 to 10 meters above the ground. It will be constructed from millions of rectifier diodes—true quantum devices—wired together." I had no idea they've been building quantum devices since the 1950's.
    • by TeknoHog (164938)

      "the receiver on Earth will be large—about 6 to 8 km in diameter, positioned 5 to 10 meters above the ground. It will be constructed from millions of rectifier diodes—true quantum devices—wired together." I had no idea they've been building quantum devices since the 1950's.

      You know, we've had quantum mechanics since the 1920s or so. I'm not sure how much the first solid state diodes were based on quantum theory or simply empirical knownedge, but by the time the transistor was invented in 1948, they probably had a pretty solid (pun intended) idea about the role of quantum mechanics.

  • Wouldn't a good walloping mass ejection from the sun just fry an orbital array? I'm sire if its big enough it would fry a ground based system too, but there's a huge amount of difference between what goes blasting through space and what hits the ground....
  • by Hamsterdan (815291) on Sunday August 25, 2013 @02:36PM (#44670791)

    Last time I did something similar in Simcity, my city got attacked by aliens...

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