Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Solar beams

The best science fiction is the stuff that could be true some day. The really great stuff is when it involves things that could be done with enough political will. Communication satellites started that way. The internet was beyond what even the best minds predicted. Space elevators are almost within our grasp.

But what I want to talk about today are orbital power collectors. Massive walls of solar panels orbiting high above the Earth's surface and powering a microwave LASER that fires at a fixed spot on the surface. At that spot is a power station that converts that beam back into electricity.

Sounds very sci-fi doesn't it? An absurd dream. Well it's a dream that the Japanese are developing and America is starting to discuss seriously.

JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) intends to have a Space Solar Power System (SSPS) running by 2030. Huge solar collectors 36,000 km above the planet would power a microwave LASER at a receiving station that covers 3 square kilometers. Their first model would only generate 1 gigawatt. That's enough for 500,000 homes or a good start on a flux capacitor.
On February 20 JAXA tested a prototype microwave power transmission system in Hokkaido. The transmission antenna was 2.4 meters wide and fired the beam 50 meters.

In America the idea was first tossed out 40 years ago. Over the last 30 years a paltry $80 million has been spent studying the concept. I say paltry because we've spent $21 billion researching fusion reactors in the last 50 years.
A 5 gigawatt design was proposed in the 70's but was rejected as being economically unfeasible. The price of power generation and the number of people who need power has jumped since then.
It was seriously revisited in 1995-1997 by NASA. Technology development seemed to be heading in the right direction and they recommended a few areas to focus on. But at the time gas was still cheap.
But now conservative economic plans have pushed the price of oil from $15/barrel to $80/barrel. A 2007 evaluation put this idea on par with fusion energy and the International Space Station.

We're not gonna see this go online during the Obama administration. There are still technical challenges akin to those seen when Kennedy said "BAM! POW! To the moon!" (I paraphrase, of course). But with political will we can race the Japanese program.

The video is of NASA's 1974 attempt.

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