NASA Wants to Know Cost of Space Solar Power

By Jeremy Hsu | September 30, 2017 3:22 pm
Space solar power stations or satellites could someday beam energy down to Earth or to remote space mining operations

Space solar power stations or satellites could someday beam energy down to Earth or to remote space mining operations. Credit: NASA

Harnessing the sun’s energy with orbital space power stations and beaming the power to Earth has been a science fiction dream ever since Isaac Asimov wrote a 1941 short story called “Reason.” But the idea has never quite gotten off the ground despite decades of intermittent interest and research for the United States and other countries. NASA hopes to keep the idea going by funding a one-year study of how much it would cost to make commercially viable space-based solar power into a reality.

The new space solar power study by the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado is one of five research projects chosen by NASA to examine new opportunities for commercial development in space. In this case, the research will consider the government regulations and private investments needed to establish space solar power stations that could beam power to Earth-based collecting stations. But it will also examine how space solar power could support robotic mining operations on the moon or asteroids–a stepping stone toward enabling long-term human space exploration and possible colonization of the solar system beyond Earth.

“It’s one thing to model this out and say this is what we think will be the cost,” said Ian Lange, director of the Mineral and Energy Economics Program at the Colorado School of Mines, in a press release. “It’s another thing to say how are people going to purchase this, how are we going to ensure costs don’t run out of control, how are we going to market this or sell this to some kind of bank or venture capital fund.”

One huge challenge for getting space solar power off the ground is literally about the cost of launching all those components into space. Launching anything into space still costs thousands of U.S. dollars per pound on today’s rockets. But that could change with the rise of commercial spaceflight companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin that are focused on developing reusable rockets capable of launching payloads for much less.

“It’s a lot of money to put one of these things up in space,” Lange said. “You need more than a model that says nuclear power is 15 cents per kilowatt hour and this is 14.”

There would be many potential applications both in space and on Earth if the launch costs and other related expenses for space solar power can eventually come down, Lange said. NASA and commercial interests in remote asteroid mining operations could be one effort that would benefit from space solar power. Another potential customer could be the U.S. military, given the military’s current need to sustain logistical supply lines of fuel to troops deployed in either war zones or in disaster relief scenarios.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    A local gigawatt-broadcast solar energy beamer would be stupidly expensive to emplace, stupidly fragile toward orbital debris and hostile interdiction, and cleverly sabotaged into a weapon re Soviet and Cuban US embassies.

    It will smell bad when birds, bats, and the occasional airplane fly through the beam.

    • Erik Bosma

      Totally agree. I think, for starters, they could carpet a huge area of the Sahara with solar panels and then that would take care of Africa’s needs. Whether it will be feasible for Africa to export that power to Europe, even better. The Middle East could also sustain themselves if not parts of Russia/China. Over here, well Mexico has a lot of arid space as does parts of the S. USA. Why do we need to waste more time and money in space when it would be so much more economical down here?
      Can I answer my own question now? Maybe it’s got something to do with all the solar-rich countries being dirt poor at present and keeping them that way.

      • Rob H.

        Who would buy solar power that is more expensive than other forms of power? And it wouldn’t have to be in the Sahara, or any desert. There is not more sunlight in the Sahara than there is elsewhere. Actually anywhere on the equator would be better.

        • Erik Bosma

          Well obviously NASA would if you had read the article. Firing MASERs up to the space station would be cheaper and safer than the other way around. Your dismissive comments about solar power and its expense sounds just like when they rolled out the steam engines; and then the oil and gas engines; and then wind power; and so on and so on. Are you one of these guys that says, “Why sonny, back when I was a kid…”? Well, don’t be one of those guys.

          • Rob H.

            No, I’m one of those guys that doesn’t spend twice as much for electricity because it’s “like, environmental, dude.”

        • Erik Bosma

          Because there’s nothing under the panels to block the light from in the Sahara. Like plants and stuff. We wouldn’t be destroying an environment.

        • Erik Bosma

          Oh… Direct sunlight takes up less space than indirect. You can’t get any more direct than the equator.

    • Timothy Weaver

      The bird and bats would have been smaller than the wavelength of the transmission. As for airplanes, the beam would bounce off the metal hull. Don’t know about composite aircraft though.

    • Justus Wunderle

      Another oil company plant with no understanding, no data and lots of judgmental adverbs and adjectives.

  • Bruce

    The next war won’t be on Earth, but in destroying each others satellites by direct destruction or converting them to disrupting each other’s technology.
    There is an answer to both of those problems. Einstein knew this as well.

  • Bruce

    Too much information has been shared with too many countries.
    Loose lips as they said in WWII

  • OWilson

    Multi-billion top down solutions are what governments do best. Spending other people’s money.

    Nobody but me will tell you that all 4 of the World’s Biggest Solar Power Companies recently went bankrupt and took some $25,000,000,000.00 taxpayer subsidies with them.

    Sun Edison
    ABENGOA
    Solyndra
    SolarPower

    Bottom up science from independent thinkers produces more bang for the buck!

    Trouble is, there are no “independent thinkers” being produced by our current liberal education.

    Stick to the “97%” consensus, keep your head down, and you might finish up with your pension intact!

    • Justus Wunderle

      You must work for an oil company!!

  • http://www.robmahanbooks.com/ Rob Mahan

    IMHO:

    Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) will be our planet’s main source of energy at some point in the 21st century. The initial research and investments will be funded by a public-private partnership, with similarities to the transcontinental railroad and communication satellite projects.

    I agree that high launch costs are one of the biggest hurdles to a successful implementation and scale-up of SBSP. Because of this, space-based mining and manufacturing technologies should precede, or at least parallel SBSP development.

    Fossil fuels are a finite resource.Only the future point in time at which fossil fuels will be more costly to extract than they are worth is in question. For all practical purposes of humankind, energy from the sun is an infinite resource.

    “It can’t be done!” is a self-fulfilling and self-defeating stance, especially when it is fueled by an inordinate amount of self-confidence.

    All the best,
    Rob Mahan
    Self-appointed Advocate
    Citizens for Space Based Solar Power (https://c-sbsp.org/)

    • Icepilot

      I’m all for solar power, but there are Oceans of hydrocarbons on Titan.

  • Combustioneer

    When it comes to solar power using photovoltaics, the most reliable and secure way is to add solar and wind to building codes. Requiring so many square feet of panel per square foot of floor space along with so many KW of wind potential. With all of them connected to the grid, it offers a decentralized system that’s almost impossible to shut down. The problem is that big energy providers won’t like it at all, even though they’ll still be providing power for industry. It’s not difficult to start putting that in place though.

    • Timothy Weaver

      Homeowners wouldn’t like overbearing blowhards forcing them to buy solar panels either. It’s none your business if someone has solar panels on your roof or not.

    • OWilson

      The perfect socialist solution.

      Can we do War, Terrorism, and maybe government corruption next?

      Thanks!

      • Justus Wunderle

        Oil company plant!!

    • Tennhauser

      Not difficult. Just insanely expensive.
      Impossible to shut down? Well, at night, when the sun goes down, it shuts down. Every. Damn. Day. Or when the wind dies off. Or both.
      The big energy providers won’t like it because it screws up the amortization of their expensive power plants. But that is not really a problem for them, because they will just jack our rates up and recover the losses. Better yet they will require a “connection fee” for anyone hooked to the grid – so you pay whether you use their kilowatts or not.
      I wish you renewable advocates would at least try and think through a few of these ideas first…

      • Justus Wunderle

        Yes, business first, our grand children somewhere down the line. You are full of technical nonsense.

    • AirFrank

      And what will you do on a windless night?

  • https://elisashebaroblog.wordpress.com/ Elisa Shebaro

    Hi Jason, Interesting read and thank you for sharing the news about Colorado School of Mines project. Have you read “The Case for Space Solar Power” from Dr. John C. Mankins? He gives some great insight about the history of SPS dating back since 1968 and how an efficient Solar Power Satellite “doesn’t take very long to ‘pay off’ the energy indebtedness that may be incurred by deployment.” (Mankins 100). Will comment more on your article later on in my Solar Power Satellite blog if you are interested.

  • TLongmire

    Sterling type engines are needed to make wind and solar more viable.

  • SocietalNorm

    Back in 1979, I did one of my senior projects in college on this. This was during one of the previous periodic peaks in interest. I went through lots of NASA reports as well as a lot of other material. In the end, I decided it was not really feasible. The significant reduction in the cost of launch helps, but there are a lot of other practical problems that haven’t changed since then. Being in the space business, I’ve looked at this from time to time and still have not been able to advocate for it even though I would have liked to.

    • Justus Wunderle

      Another oil company plant. Wake up, this is the only solution and it IS feasible. The costs will come down, the coal companies will make plastic and the oil companies will make jet fuel. Get over it!

  • Justus Wunderle

    Interesting that they chose a group for the study that might have a vested interest against deploying this technology which would greatly reduce the demand for coal and oil. Seems a little suspicious. I guess they figure if they can get these guys on board, it must be good. BUT, the interest is not for major earth use but for mining minerals and probably processing in space. It could be a start. This technology could save the planet although it might make all those gas stations useless. As many know, the cost to launch is related to preparation of the hardware and not the energy consumption. As launch vehicles progress, this cost will fall by orders of magnitude. We just need something useful besides dumb ideas like colonizing Mars with humans.

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Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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