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Orbiting Solar Power Plants ‘Technically Feasible’ Within 30 Years: Study

November 16, 2011

Orbiting solar power plants that harness the sun´s energy from space and beam it to Earth could be economically viable within three decades based on technologies currently being tested, according to a new study by scientists with the International Academy of Astronautics.

Reuters first reported on the study on Monday, having obtained a copy of the 248-page report ahead of its release.

The study is the first broad based international assessment of potential plans to collect solar energy in space and deliver it to markets on Earth via wireless power transmission.

“It is clear that solar power delivered from space could play a tremendously important role in meeting the global need for energy during the 21st century,” wrote the study´s authors, led by John Mankins, a 25-year NASA veteran and former head of concepts for the space agency.

The researchers did not estimate an overall cost for completing a space solar power project, but said that government funding would likely be needed to bring the concept to market.

Private sector funding alone would be difficult due to the “economic uncertainties” of the development and demonstration phases and the time lags, the authors wrote.

The idea behind the space solar power plants is to put first one, then a few, and later scores of solar-powered satellites in geosynchronous orbit over the Earth´s equator.   Each satellite would be more than half a mile wide, and would collect sunlight round the clock.  By comparison, traditional surface panels currently used to turn sunlight into electricity are, at most, half that size.

The space solar power would be converted to electricity on-board, and sent to Earth wherever it is needed by a large microwave-transmitting antenna or by lasers, then fed into a power grid.

Skeptics of such a system say the concept is unworkable until the cost of putting a commercial power plant into orbit declines by a factor of 10 or more.  Other barriers include space debris, a lack of focused market studies and high development costs.

However, the current study, conducted from 2008 to 2010 then subjected to peer review, found that the commercial case had improved markedly during the past ten years.
For instance, a pilot project to demonstrate the technology even as big as the International Space Station could proceed using low-cost expendable launch vehicles being developed for other space markets, Mankins said during an interview with Reuters.

A moderate-scale demonstration would cost tens of billions of dollars less than previously projected as a result of not needing costly, reusable launch vehicles early on, said Mankins, president of consultancy firm Artemis Innovation Management Solutions LLC.

“This was a really important finding,” he told Reuters.

Mankins´ firm has been awarded a NASA contract of nearly $100,000 to pursue space-based solar power options.  However, the International Academy of Astronautics study group found that tens of billions of dollars would ultimately be needed to develop and deploy a low-cost fleet of reusable, earth-to-orbit vehicles to launch a system of commercial solar power satellites.

The group said countries and organizations would need to collaborate to achieve the necessary research and development work.

Interest in the concept has grown during the past decade, driven by concerns over rising demand for energy to drive economic development and concerns that global production of petroleum and other fossil fuels will peak and begin to decline in the coming years.

The idea of harnessing solar power in space has been studied intermittently for decades.  In September, U.S. and Indian business, policy and national security analysts called for a joint feasibility study on a cooperative campaign to develop space-based solar power with a goal of deploying a commercially viable capability within twenty years.

The study group involved in the current research, which was co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and Aspen Institute India, included former U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and former Indian ambassador to the U.S. Naresh Chandra.

The academy is headed by Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization.

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports