In a burst of solar activity, the sun unleashed a notable solar flare, reaching its peak at 2:14 p.m. EDT on October 20, 2012. Captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), this image showcases an M9-class flare, providing a glimpse into the dynamic nature of our star. The potential of space-based solar power emerges as a compelling prospect for sustainable energy. Envisioning the future, orbital collection systems could harness energy in space and transmit it wirelessly to Earth.
Countries worldwide are delving into research and development of space-based solar power, aligning with global initiatives to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. NASA, recognizing the importance of this field, is exploring avenues to support its development. The recently released report, “Space-Based Solar Power,” by NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy (OTPS), serves as a valuable resource for NASA in understanding how it can contribute to advancing this research domain.
Charity Weeden, leading NASA OTPS, notes that the report compares the lifecycle cost and potential net emissions reductions of two conceptual space-based solar power systems, offering insights into the technological, policy, and economic considerations crucial for progress in this field. The analysis assesses the conditions under which space-based solar power can competitively contribute to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and explores NASA’s potential role in this transformative endeavor.
Embarking on the development of a space-based solar power system presents several formidable challenges that demand innovative solutions. Overcoming significant capability gaps entails addressing issues such as assembling and maintaining large systems in orbit, ensuring autonomous operation, and devising efficient power-beaming techniques for transmitting harvested energy to Earth. These systems might necessitate operation in geostationary orbit, posing additional challenges compared to the low-Earth orbit paths typical for many current satellites.
Before the realization of space-based solar power systems, meticulous attention must be given to managing launch and manufacturing costs, considering the substantial mass that needs to be transported into orbit through numerous sustained missions to establish the required infrastructure. This multifaceted approach underscores the complexity of pioneering advancements in this transformative field.
In evaluating the potential of a space-based solar power system operational by 2050, the OTPS report highlights that, within the projected timeline, such a system may initially be costlier than terrestrial sustainable alternatives. However, the report underscores the possibility of cost reduction if ongoing capability gaps are effectively addressed.
However, the report underscores the possibility of cost reduction if ongoing capability gaps are effectively addressed. While emissions from space-based solar power could align with those from terrestrial alternatives, the report acknowledges the need for more detailed assessments on this front. Notably, NASA’s ongoing development of technologies for its existing mission portfolio holds indirect benefits for space-based solar power. Initiatives focusing on autonomous systems, wireless power beaming, and in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing are poised to contribute to the advancement of this transformative field.
NASA adopts a proactive stance in continually reassessing its strategies to effectively navigate challenges impacting its missions. The report underscores the potential for further analysis of space-based solar power, especially as technology advances and capability gaps are mitigated. Notably, the report suggests exploring the technology for potential lunar applications, indicative of NASA’s forward-thinking approach.
As the landscape evolves, NASA remains committed to refining its approach based on technological advancements and emerging opportunities. For those interested in gaining deeper insights, the report, along with other OTPS documents guiding NASA on technology, policy, and strategy matters, is accessible on the office’s webpage.