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A Space Solar Power system that makes sense

The National Space Society and the International Academy of Astronautics held a press conference at the National Press Club yesterday to announce stunning advances in the systems design of Space Based Solar Power satellites.

John Mankins has been working on a modular solar power station architecture for a number of years. Instead of a big, all up construction project, there are mass produced small modules that begin paying for themselves almost immediately.

His concept could be flying in 10 years. Rather than assume a system has to look like the concept drawings from the 1970′s, he completely rethought it using modern technology. The result is a module that can launch on an existing rocket and immediately make itself useful by delivering power to anywhere on earth it is needed. On its own one module is not going to power a city, but it might power a small remote facility or supply emergency power to a team at a disaster area. As cash-flow or investment capital allows, more identical units can be launched. They may be used separately… or they might be joined up like robotic Lego blocks to form larger and larger structures, generating larger and larger amounts of energy for Earth-Based usage.

Take a look at the IAA report.

The video is now available.

30 comments to A Space Solar Power system that makes sense

  • mdc

    “Mankins says that engineers will be able to demonstrate multi-megawatt power transmission, with an energy cost of $1 to $5 per kilowatt hour”

    Ok, so it’s “only” going to be 100x more expensive than existing sources.

    Next, please.

  • mdc: I suppose it depends whether that’s the cost of a demonstration, or the cheapest it can possibly be. The costs are hardware, launch and maintenance. I can imagine it getting cheaper fast.

  • samsam von virginia

    Telstar I could carry a single TV channel, and was available for trans-Atlantic use 20 minutes every 2.5 hours (wikipedia). I doubt it was economically viable.

  • Dale Amon

    Exactly. Even if an idea is wonderful and guaranteed to work, when you are talking the price of large power stations you are going to have to be able to prove the concept with smaller units before someone coughs up the money for a big infrastructure project. Private money can build $10B and up projects for energy, but the risks have to be known and dealt with. Mankins approach allows the generation of real cash flow in niche markets while working up the learning curve and then allows a business to expand infrastructure in bite sized and affordable chunks. It’s a great idea.

  • Sounds great and good to see someone thinking outside the box but if MDC’s comment about cost is correct then probably never be relevent

  • mdc

    Launch costs aren’t going to get cheap any time soon. Currently it costs 4x as much to launch something than its price in silver, at the best price, up to roughly its price in gold for the worst. Solar has a 500% mark-up even on earth, typical case for new build. At a 10,000% mark-up, electricity is no longer worth buying for almost any current use. The way the report solves the problem is to assume that there’s a niche market in electricity that will be willing to pay $2 to boil a kettle. That’s it.

    No one is going to fund this. Not even the government is that dumb (thankfully). Space is a dead end economically for at least 100 years and probably after that for all but niche applications. Pretty much all current private capital currently being invested in space is rich middle aged men playing with over-sized train-sets. And even then the goals are modest – Virgin Galactic is the most economically sensible and it barely qualifies as entering space.

    Of the previous gen technology, GPS is state/military, sat phone companies all went bankrupt, even communication satellites (largely supplanted by fibre now) were only possible because sunk costs were paid by ICBM development. Moon race is last century’s equivalent of the pyramids.

  • Dale Amon

    Ah, someone who well and truly has no idea what they are talking about. Which is not intended as an insult as very few people are actually cognizant of what is going on and how rapidly the economics are changing.

    I mostly write for those who already know a good bit about it because there are simply not enough hours in the day to educate people about New Space… at the same time I am working at my own new Space company and supporting myself in the early stages of the startup and product development.

  • mdc

    That’s not an answer. More of an imperious brush-off.

    If you know of a way to drastically reduce launch costs, by which I mean at least 1 order of magnitude and ideally 2, then by all means tell me, or link to an article or paper if you don’t have time. Otherwise I don’t feel the need to revise my position.

  • Dale Amon

    Go read up on SpaceX. $1000/lb and falling.

  • Josh

    Whilst the technology might be unfeasible now, we could use shale gas for the next 50+ years and then switch to space power.

    The technology therefore serves a useful purpose now for providing an answer to the green-eco mob for when they ask what will happen once we hit peak-shale.

  • mdc

    http://www.spacex.com/falcon9.php

    Current SpaceX best price is $5k/kg: higher than the minimum of the range I stated (although impressively close, perhaps the origin of the figure). The company is also yet to produce any revenue.

    I’m looking for launch costs of order $500-50. Consider how incredibly expensive that still is. $500/kg is more than it costs to build a nuclear submarine. This just to move some other really expensive thing you built.

  • Dale Amon

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_Heavy

    Flies in 1-2 years. There is no conceivable power sat module that will fly before this is operational.

    And that is just the start, although one has to cross fingers on the fly back stages, but they are already under development.

  • Runcie Balspune

    What about the energy cost rather than the $ cost, how much relative power is it going to take to get it up in orbit to start with, plus the building of the microwave receivers and when does it reach the critical stage when it starts giving net energy ?

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Here’s a potentially lucrative idea for space-enthusiasts- the Solar-powered air tank! Why not attach a solar-powered recycling unit to a space-suit, so you could recycle your own air, instead of running out?

  • This idea has a serious weight to lift issue that will have to be addressed. It will never fly Wilbur.

  • Solar Power

    I just added this feed to my bookmarks. I have to say, I very much enjoy reading your blogs. Keep it up!

  • John B

    The possible complication of adding to the planet’s energy level has concerned me.

    One solar satellite station sending in energy. Fine.
    Like one motor car puttering around in 1900, or whenever.
    But now that the globe is full of motor cars, the sheer scale has an effect.

    If orbiting solar power stations really took off (:)) and the overall energy gain to the planet became sufficiently high as a result of the scale of operation, perhaps we might see genuine global warming – Or some other complication?

  • APL

    JohnB: “… perhaps we might see genuine global warming – Or some other complication?”

    If you can pump energy onto the planet, presumably you can build heat exchangers that collect ambient heat, and beam it back into space?

  • Gareth

    Just use the solar arrays as sun shades.

  • mdc

    Dale Amon:

    1. I was being generous using Falcon 9, where although costs are still speculative (it has never been bought and launched commercially), and derived from a sales brochure, the vehicle has at least been built. Falcon Heavy is just CGI.

    2. It’s only achieved by making a really big rocket. That’s great if you have a big (and reasonably dense) payload, otherwise it isn’t. It’s like getting a discount for bulk ordering. If you don’t need 1,000 printers you’re still out of pocket compared to 1, even though it’s cheaper per unit.

    3. It’s still only 2x cheaper, not 10x let alone 100x. Latter would require some sort of theoretical breakthrough, not just eliminating NASA admin bloat.

  • Course we could postulate the whole Fallen Angels (Link) deal and maybe use the solar power station output to alleviate the worst of the next ice age.

  • Dale Amon

    CGI it is not. Metal is bent, the engines exist and they’ve probably already built ones for the test flight. And in any case, even the Falcon 9 is quite a significant drop in prices. Since you do not believe in free market technological advance, then recheck the current situation as noted in http://www.airspacemag.com/space-exploration/Visionary-Launchers-Employees.html :

    “All very impressive. But what really sets SpaceX apart, and has made it a magnet for controversy, are its prices: As advertised on the company’s Web site, a Falcon 9 launch costs an average of $57 million, which works out to less than $2,500 per pound to orbit. That’s significantly less than what other U.S. launch companies typically charge, and even the manufacturer of China’s low-cost Long March rocket (which the U.S. has banned importing) says it cannot beat SpaceX’s pricing. By 2014, the company’s next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, aims to lower the cost to $1,000 per pound. And Musk insists that’s just the beginning. “Our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time,” he writes on SpaceX’s Web site, “as is the case with every other technology.” Like the Chinese, many observers in this country are wondering how SpaceX can deliver what it promises.”

  • Andrew Irwin

    APL: “If you can pump energy onto the planet, presumably you can build heat exchangers that collect ambient heat, and beam it back into space?”

    If you can collect all that energy to beam it somewhere, why would you beam it out to space, rather than do something useful with it? You’ll just be beaming energy back down with your solar power satellites anyway.

    I suppose it might turn out to be cheaper to beam energy down and then beam it back out to space, but it seems unlikely.

  • thefrollickingmole

    I can hear the greenies now, “No this is evil solar because it wasnt falling on earth natrualy”…

    Would this be suitable for powering lunar or satelite structres though? Might that be a usefull first use of the concept?

    Satelites powered by space based solar rather than their own systems might see a lot cheaper satelites, as the need for most on board power would be gone?

  • This question is for both Dale Amon and mdc: What value for launch cost do you think is the magic number at which large scale commercial space development (e.g. colonies) makes sense?

  • Dale Amon

    There are two number that matter. One is the $/lb LEO at which new applications become feasible and the market begins to increase in size as price falls. We have sat at a ‘fat and happy’ ‘valley of death’ in the price of launch for decades, caused I believe, by the market distortions of Apollo. The customer base at that price point is relatively limited, constant and price-insensitive. In the board room there is no pressure to change it because profits will decrease if you serve the same customer base at a lower cost.

    I believe that when we get down to the $1000/lb range we will break out of that cycle. Some of the many ideas that have been held back for those decades will become feasible. The increase in volume funds more decreases in $/lb which then opens the market to more customers. People have been trying to come from outside to push us to that take off point for a couple decades. Elon is the first one to actually be a real threat at accomplishing it.

    Once you get down to the $500-$100/lb range, just about everything we have ever imagined becomes possible. That is not the theoretical lower limit (the cost of the energy to lift and accelerate 1lb to orbital velocity in LEO, ie KE+PE) of price, but it is ‘good enough’.

    My key point on pricing is that Falcon 9 has set the cat amongst the pigeons. Elon has pushed the price down so far within the ‘traditional market’ that he could well eat the lunch of all of the other global providers. From the bookings he is getting, it appears that is already in progress. If he breaks the ULA monopoly (something the USAF would be more than happy to see happen) he will have driven the entire traditional market to within spitting distance of the lip of the valley. When he gets Falcon Heavy flying, he hits the sweet spot in size and profitability and pushes us into the land of the virtuous downward cycle in prices, one which will eventually get us those $500-$100 per pound costs.

    And if he is successful with his fly back 1st and 2nd stage project (which he is already testing with the Grasshopper test article) Elon might get us to that $500 range or lower within the decade. I am not betting on that yet because it is still in R&D. Falcon Heavy, on the other hand, is a rocket that is an extension of what has already been done and is already under construction. Given that a pad is being built at VAFB, one can imagine who some of the folk are that are interested in 53 tons in a polar orbit…

  • Dale Amon

    Getting rid of waste heat… you really run into the 3rd law of thermodynamics. What powers your laser? If the heat represented usable energy it would have been used. Energy is not created or destroyed it is simply downgraded.

    One might think of it in another way. We could draw an imaginary graph of the energy needs at any given time in the future. That energy could come from Earth’s surface or it could come from outside. If it comes from the surface, there are large productions loses since no form of energy generation is 100% efficient. All of the losses go into waste heat. If you are generating your energy in space, the production waste heat is rejected to the vacuum and never reaches the earth; microwave transmission is highly efficient. So MW for MW, you may create less waste heat on the surface than otherwise by doing your generating ‘out there’.

  • mdc

    Dale Amon:

    I feel like we’re going off on a tangent here. Even if SpaceX achieves its most radical predictions ($1k/kg), SPS is still sunk.

  • Richard Thomas

    How about if they are small enough to piggyback off launches of other satellites? If someone needs their big comms satellite launched and it only occupies, say, 85% of available payload, might it be possible to throw a couple of these in at a reduced rate to help offset the fixed cost of a launch?