Space-Based Solar Power Deemed Challenging But Feasible

The website Satellite Today has a really interesting article on the promise – and challenges – of building space-based solar power satellites:

John Mankins, president of Space Power Association, a private, international organization that promotes space solar power, estimates with today’s technology the project would cost $10 billion and be in place by 2025.

The venture would generate new jobs in the satellite industry, especially for satellite antennas companies:

One of the U.S. leaders in the convergence of the satellite industry and the solar industry is Patriot Antenna Systems, a division of Cobham, which produces more than two million antennas per year. In 2005 Patriot Solar Group began to focus on compatible opportunities for the company’s satellite antenna design and manufacturing core competencies. “Having the two markets; namely, solar and satellite antennas, is very beneficial. I do not know if this is a huge market in terms of the satellite market, but certainly it is for equipment manufacturers,” says Jeff Mathie, president of Patriot Solar Group. “It is especially strong for parabolic, tracking and control manufacturers. Frankly, the solar market needs all the technology and capability that satellite industry integrators have. You have to know the same types of things, such as understanding foundations, appreciating tracking, making sure that the wind loads are calculated, and knowing controller systems.”

“In my opinion, the same type of companies that were doing business in the satellite industry back in the heydays of satellites in the 80s and 90s can now see opportunities in the solar industry,” says Mathie. “The solar industry can now give all of those satellite submarkets categories such as antennas, controllers, integrators and installers a new revenue source that is 10 or 20 times higher than the satellite business ever was. Where we think that most of the technology advances are for our existing satellite technology is in CPV and Stirling engines.”

However, there are a number of challenges with launching geosyncronous solar-power satellites, says NASA’s Mike Ryschkewitsch.

“Everything that I looked at says that it ought to be technically feasible to do it, but no one has taken a hard look at the public policy or political issues, and the economics are just not there….You have to solve the problem of a solar array you build and launch in space is always going to cost significantly more than what you would put on the ground because you have to put it on a rocket and it has to last for a very long time having someone service it. Servicing it would have a high overhead.”

Another major issue is that the geostationary orbit already is very crowded with communications satellites, Ryschkewitsch says. “Now you have to put these very large structures [and ensure] that you have no possibility of collisions; that you don’t have any interference from the microwave beams with your communication channels. So there are many other challenges that make it exceedingly unlikely that you are ever going to make a solar array and come out ahead. I am not arguing that solar power in space is not a good idea; however, the key is to do an end-to-end analysis to validate solar arrays in space.”

However, Mankins is optimistic that the challenges can be overcome.

“Space solar power is possible, but it will take a long time. If a thoughtful and [adequately funded] space solar power program were started in 2009, then it’s possible that a 100-megawatt pilot plant demonstrator could be operational in geostationary Earth orbit as early as 2017. Five power satellites could supply 2 percent of the energy needs for the United States.”

It will be interesting to see what the Obama Administration does on space-based solar power.