Design Space Based Solar Power: An Opportunity for Strategic Security


Consistent with the US National Security Strategy, energy and environmental security are not just problems for America, they are critical challenges for the entire world. Expanding human populations and declining natural resources are potential sources of local and strategic conflict in the 21st Century, and many see energy scarcity as the foremost threat to national security. Conflict prevention is of particular interest to security-providing institutions such as the U.S. Department of Defense which has elevated energy and environmental security as priority issues with a mandate to proactively find and create solutions that ensure U.S. and partner strategic security is preserved.

The magnitude of the looming energy and environmental problems is significant enough to warrant considerations of all options, to include revisiting a concept called Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) first invented almost 40 years ago. The basic idea is very straightforward: place very large solar arrays into continuously and intensely sunlit Earth orbit (1,366 watts/m²), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth and receive it on the surface for use either as base-load power via direct connection to the existing electrical grid, conversion into manufactured synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or as low intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers. A single Kilometre-wide band in geosynchronous Earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable oil reserves on Earth today. This amount of energy indicates that there is enormous potential for energy security, economic development, improved environmental stewardship, advancement of general space faring and engineering and overall national security for those nations who construct and possess a SBSP capability.

NASA and DOE have collectively spent over $80M over the last three decades in sporadic efforts studying this concept (by comparison, the U.S. Government has spent approximately $21B over the last 50 years continuously pursuing nuclear fusion). The first major effort at such development occurred in the 1970’s where scientific feasibility of the concept was established and a reference 5 GW system design proposed. Unfortunately 1970’s architecture and technology levels could not support an economic case for development relative to other lower-cost energy alternatives on the market. In 1995-1997 NASA initiated a “Fresh Look” Study to re-examine the concept relative to modern technological capabilities. The report (validated by the National Research Council) indicated that technology vectors to satisfy SBSP development were converging quickly and provided recommended development focus areas, but for various reason that again included the relatively lower cost of other energies, policy makers elected not to pursue a development effort. Since that time the cost of oil has risen to an all time high to $140 per barrel (up from $35 per barrel in 1997) totally tipping the balance in favour of SBSP development.

SBSP provides enormous challenges to a multitude of disciplines, not least space engineers but also physicists, electrical, mechanical, structural and civil engineers, mining and manufacturing engineers (for potential construction of space arrays on near Earth bodies), as well as politicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs and economists to make the whole development successful. This paper describes the problems and the potential solutions to creating a new and potentially unlimited energy source for the future.