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Northrop Collaborates with AFRL on Space Based Solar Power

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posted on Dec, 14 2019 @ 01:31 PM
Not all military projects are weapons and bombs. Some times they are logistical in nature. Sometimes, they are energy related.

Space-based solar power satellites[1] (SPS) have been a staple of science fiction since the 1970s. Folks realized back around the Apollo program the Earth's atmosphere would not be in the way of collecting solar power: the earth's atmosphere reflects 40% of the light from the sun. /And/ the solar power satellites could also overcome one of the fundamental problems with solar power systems on Earth: orbits could be tailored so the solar panels would /always/ be in sunlight unlike on Earth where the sun rises and sets as the Earth rotates, leaving the solar power system useless during certain times of that day. However, there are nontrivial issues historically.

The first is that launch costs have been extremely high. $10,000/lb to low earth orbit crippled the chances of placing solar panels in space and getting any reasonable ROI. While this has come down significantly, the costs still make an SPS unable to compete with a terrestrially placed solar power system. $10,000/lb is more than enough money increase the terrestrial solar power system many times over, more than making up for the limited time the sun is in the sky. Musk and Bezos are driving the launch industry to vastly reduce their costs. The day of $100/lb are still a long ways off even so.

Additionally, the solar power sats would be physically constrained in the rockets that have been historically available. The Titan and Delta series of rockets are very limited in the physical space available to pack solar panels in the rocket's fairings. It might not be possible to place the maximum mass possible in the rocket due to the solar panels' physical dimensions. Again, both Bezos and Musk are working on the problem with their New Glenn and Starship rockets.

On top of that, placing the SPS in the ideal constantly lit orbit would reduce the useable payload by nontrivial amounts, even down by as much as half. It could be as little as half or less of the payload to LEO would be actually placed in the ideal orbit for the SPS. That would impact the cost in a huge way.

Additionally, there are many technologies needed to make a SPS operational that simply don't exist. The SPS were planned to use massive microwave beams to send the power to the ground. The massive antenna needed haven't been built. Microwave transmitters in the 100's of megawatts or even gigawatts don't exist. Space based solar cells that do not degrade far faster than their terrestrial counterparts don't exist (space is harsh mistress). etc, etc.

All of these, but especially the economics of it all, have doomed the space-based solar power systems: the total costs of construction and transmission of power from space cannot compete with ground based solar power. However, there are aspects than merely economics encouraging the adoption of SPS. The primary driver actually could be national security, military or even environmental reasons.

Environmentally, cleaning up /any/ sort of electronics at the end of their life is a disaster. There are all sorts of nasty things leaking from landfills full of dead electronics. Solar panels are no exception to this. If the solar panels are launched into space and never return because they are disposed of on the moon or whatever. No pollution on Earth and the moon is dead, so unless you plan on terraforming the moon any time in the future (ill advised for many other reasons), it seems like a safe bet.

However, the real driver and on topic for this board would be the development of power independent of any source on Earth is for military and national security reasons. Imagine the ability to power the US with no oil, no combustion, no need top be worried about pollution at all. No worrying what the Middle East is doing and its impact on the oil market at all.

Imagine an army sent over seas and their is no fuel needed, no diesel or gasoline at all. The power needed to charge the batteries in the tanks and aircraft would be beamed from the satellites far, far above. Far out of range of almost all antisatellite weapons. The US Army proposed this in their future warfare studies back in the late 1990s. However, costs have been historically against them and in a time frame when even basic maintenance of aircraft was postponed and the military was first downsized and then thrown into wars where solar power was hardly a necessity, it the concept was a nonstarter. At least until now.

Northrop signed an agreement[2] with the Air Force Research lab to begin developing, in an incremental fashion, the technologies needed for SPS. The antenna technology, the transmitters, light weight solar cells with long durability, etc. These are all planned for the program. The program will culminate with the testing of the tech. TBH, probably on earth, but if it is promising enough after that, it could be done in space. If so, then...things could get really interesting.


posted on Dec, 14 2019 @ 02:41 PM
Won't they have to send the generated energy down on Earth?

More specifically, won't they have to beam massive amount of energy down at the Earth?

Massive electromagnetic fields right upon the Earth?

How could that possibly go wrong?

posted on Dec, 14 2019 @ 04:12 PM

originally posted by: swanne

How could that possibly go wrong?

I dunno. The Sun does it all the time.

posted on Dec, 14 2019 @ 08:54 PM
If you want solar power from orbit then the very first thing to understand is that the rocket's shape needs to change to a flat and long disk. A longer Spirit bomber shape would be a great starting point. Also, use the underside for large scale comms.

Round is not going to cut it.


posted on Dec, 15 2019 @ 07:03 AM
In theory it makes sense.

In practice just makes a really big target for Asat missiles, and orbital debris.

And could be weaponized.

Like what you use to do as a kid and use a magnifying lens to fry ants.

OK i did that as a kid.

Others prolly didn't.

edit on 15-12-2019 by neo96 because: (no reason given)

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