A new report from the Pentagon's National Security Space Office (NSSO) postulates that space-based solar-power platforms could begin fulfilling planetary demand for electricity by 2050. The report noted that while significant challenges remain, the technologies for making extraterrestrial relay stations a reality "are more executable than ever before and current technological vectors promise to further improve its viability."
The study's authors are advising the U.S. government to inaugurate a coordinated national program for fostering the technology's development, with the first step consisting of a proof-of-concept demonstration in outer space.
The best way to convince the public that the concept is viable is to show people that the technology actually works, said NSSO spokesperson Lt. Colonel Paul Damphousse. "It's not a stretch to prepare equipment to put on the space station to demonstrate beaming" and to test other vital components, Damphousse noted.
A Flying Hoover Dam
The new NSSO study, which includes input from more than 170 experts worldwide, might seem like science fiction to some, but so did the article "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" published by mathematician and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. Today the world derives incalculable benefits from Clarke's pioneering vision of how communication platforms in geostationary orbit over the earth's equator could relay TV and radio programs to virtually every inhabitable place on the planet.
The space station would give scientists the ability to test a wide variety of devices and component technologies far more rapidly than you could anywhere else in space right now, said the president of the Space Power Association and report contributor John Mankins.
"We could use it to validate key concepts of operations: automated assembly, repair, maintenance," Mankins explained. "And it could be a staging point for larger-scale demonstrations" which are "achievable within a decade, not 50 years away."
The first large-scale system could plausibly be on the scale of the Hoover Dam, which would represent enough power to light a city, Mankins noted. But the power could also "be directed to more than one ground location where the markets are. It will be a matter of identifying the new opportunities, project by project."
Extraterrestrial Power Relays
According to the NSSO's Space-Based Study Group, a single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today.
Huge solar arrays placed into a continuously and intensely sunlit orbit around the earth would be able to generate gigawatts of electrical energy that could be electromagnetically beamed back to earth. The receiving stations down on the ground would be designed to deliver the power to the existing electrical grid, convert it into synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or even broadcast it directly to consumers.
"In the coming century we will need to find as much energy as the world uses today in green form, not just once, but two, three, or more times over," Mankins noted. "And in technological competitiveness, we need to do ambitious things as a nation to renew our technological strength in all areas."
A U.S. funded demonstration would engage the interest of foreign governments concerned about future energy demands, the report's authors noted. Moreover, full deployment of the technology in space would help nations to avoid future military conflicts over increasingly scarce energy resources, they said.