Experts: Reusable Launch Vehicles Will Make Space Solar Power Affordable

PowerSat's plans for beaming energy from space
PowerSat’s plans for beaming energy from space.

About 20 years ago, NASA conducted a study of space solar power. A friend of mine who was involved said they determined that about six miracles were necessary to make it feasible, the most important being affordable transportation to orbit.

Looks like that miracle is coming closer. Reusable launch vehicles now being developed — along with other advancements over the past two decades — could finally make beaming power down from orbiting satellites economically feasible.

Aviation Week has a lengthy report on a recent space solar panel conference held in Kobe, Japan, where they discussed the prospects for this clean form of power:

“We need a reusable launch system,” says Susumu Sasaki of Tokyo City University, a professor emeritus at JAXA who has studied the relationship between launch costs and the cost of power delivered from space.

Using a 2003 JAXA reference model with a 1-gigawatt station weighing 10,000 tons, Sasaki says power would cost a prohibitive $1.12/kwh at a launch cost to low Earth orbit (LEO) of $10,000 per kilogram. That is in the ballpark of what space launch costs today. Cut that to $1,000 a kilogram—in the ballpark for a reusable launch vehicle (RLV)—and electricity from space drops to 18 cents/kwh.

The SpaceX RLV work, which includes prototype landing legs on the current Falcon 9 taking cargo to the International Space Station (see photo on page 25) and using the rocket’s engines to control the first stage’s return to a splashdown in the Atlantic, is but one development in the fast-changing worldwide spaceflight endeavor that holds promise for space solar power.

Sasaki also cites the need for an orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) to move SPS hardware from LEO to the geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) where space power systems would operate, a development that meshes nicely with NASA’s efforts to develop a high-power solar electric propulsion system for deep-space exploration (AW&ST March 31, p. 26).

Read the full story here.

Wired Magazine also has a story about the original effort by NASA to develop space solar power.

  • mzungu

    Yeah, it’s a niche power source. Space debris up in GEO had not gather much headlines, but considering how concentrated things are up there, I am surprised it been peaceful up there. but if there is more construction up there, who knows…it’ll get interesting.

    and then there is that amount of spectrum noises it’ll generate, good luck getting those com-sat people to sign off on this…. specially for countries that owns those slots… hhahaa.

    I don’t even know why I am talking about SPS, it’s like talking about flying cars….such a waste of time. 😀

  • Michael Vaicaitis


  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Thorium is the feed “fuel” that breeds to Uranium 233 which is the actual fuel. IOW, a Thorium reactor IS a Uranium 233 reactor.

  • mzungu

    All those rectenna makes for big targets for FOB, don’t you think? The USN have the capability to build nuclear reactors that will prob fit into a shipping container, so I doubt they need it for “power”. That SPS would makes for good electronic warfare jammers for brute force jamming for enemy fleets.

  • mzungu

    The Japanese started their nuclear power program not 10 years after the A-bombs were dropped, because they realize/know that one of the reason they lost the war is because they import all their oil, and towards the end of WWII, their Navy can’t move because of shortage of fuel.

    So, with their current political climate with China and their other neighbors, and how China is expanding their navy and securing energy sources deals from around the world…. I think it’ll take less than 10 years to over come their fears this time.

  • Tonya

    It took about 35 years to break ground on the first new civil reactor in the United States after the comparatively minor Three Mile Island.

    Democracies scare easily and Japan is a very different country today to what it was sixty years ago.

    The entire Japanese nuclear industry has now been shut down for three years, representing around 20% of the countries energy mix. The cost to their economy of doing that has been immense, a powerful indicator of the level of opposition. It now looks probable that two thirds of those plants will be written off, with just one in three being slowly reactivated over this decade.

    To connect back to the title story, I don’t think Japan will consider nuclear again for many generations and only then when vastly safer designs have been proven. The country is throwing huge amounts of money into renewable energy and proposing to increase it’s already ambitious targets. That is the simple reason why they are the edge case that may attempt space based solar before anyone else. They have the right mix of economic and political need.