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.