“It’s amazing when you think of it,” said Adell. His broad face had lines of weariness in it, and he stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily about. “All the energy we can possibly ever use for free. Enough energy, if we wanted to draw on it, to melt all Earth into a big drop of impure liquid iron, and still never miss the energy so used. All the energy we could ever use, forever and forever and forever.” So begins Isaac Asimov’s short story, “The Last Question” wherein humanity has mastered the power of the sun, putting online a one-mile Solar Station in orbit that beams sunpower down to Earth, solving all of Earth’s energy needs in one fell swoop. Science fiction was the true birthplace of space-based solar power, which found a home in the minds of science fiction writers like Asimov who used such technology liberally in their fiction.
It was not until a decade later that space-based solar power was first proposed as a legitimate scientific idea. First though, SBSP depended upon several key developments throughout the 20th century to even be considered conceptually.
In 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world with the launch of the very first artificial satellite, Sputnik. This launch spurred on the Space Race of the 1960s, which saw the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a bitter struggle to the stars. Culminating in the U.S. putting a man on the moon in July of 1969, the Space Race is responsible for monumental progress in humanity’s ability to launch objects, vehicles, and people into space safely and repeatedly. Space-based solar power depends on this ability, both as far as actually launching materials or fully functional devices into orbit, as well as getting humans or robots to the devices for construction or maintenance once they are operational.
In addition, space-based solar naturally depends on solar cell technology. The first solar cell was patented in 1913, and the first modern silicon solar cell (which most ground-based solar cells today are still made of) was developed by Bells Labs in 1954. Since then, materials, efficiency, and design of devices to harness the sun’s almighty rays for energy steadily improved in the following century. Satellites, space-based telescopes, and even the International Space Station all in fact currently use solar power as their energy source; the challenge today is getting that energy back to earth for use here on the planet’s surface.
Such an idea, to use a orbit-bound satellite gathering sunlight to send down energy for humanity below, traces back its first serious proposal to Dr. Peter Glasner in 1968.
A few years later in 1973, Glasner patented a space-based solar power satellite. An energy crisis loomed in the 1970s due to the 1973 oil embargo. With cars in the United States backed up for miles waiting for precious gasoline, NASA and the Department of Energy partnered up to seriously study SBSP in 1978. They found that solar cells could in fact survive the harsh climate of space, but the outrageous cost of launch kept the idea from germinating fully. In 1982, NASA partnered with Boeing, a major global aerospace company, to come up with a viable proposal for a space-based solar power station satellite. Boeing reported that their system “could supply most of the country at the time with electricity,” producing 10 thousand megawatts of over 30 years. Even Boeing admitted however, the initial costs to bring their system online would be immense.
According to John Mankins, an aerospace engineer and businessman who is leading the charge on American SBSP efforts through his project SPS-ALPHA, “Most people in the aerospace industry learned, when they were coming up as new engineers, that solar power satellites are impossible, wildly expensive and that anybody who works on them is a nut,” said Mankins. This attitude holds true today, when many experts dismiss the idea of SBSP out of hand based on the costs involved.
Still, by 1995, NASA commissioned a “Fresh Look” study on SBSP, again renewing hopes for a project to move forward. In 1998, the International Space Station was launched and the United States Congress released a report authorizing “an increase of $20,000,000 for Space Solar Power research.” Still, the technology was still seen by most scientists and politicians as only a small and weak hope for near future energy needs.
The year 2002 was a boon to SBSP devotees and space aficionados alike, the so-called “nuts” who had not been taken seriously for 40 years due to the incredible price tag attached to the concept. With the 2002 establishment of SpaceX, the private space industry was born, taking the reins from the governments who previously held sole power to reach space. With SpaceX’s work, the cost of launching materials – and eventually people – into space is rapidly coming down, making the dream of SBSP that much closer to a reality.
In the meantime, NASA has watched their budget be slashed again and again, forced to scale back plans of all scientific endeavors. Ben Patterson, a junior aerospace and mechanical engineering student at the University of Miami in Florida and a team member of NASA’s Microgravity University Flight Program, expresses his disappointment in America’s apparent waning interest in spaceflight, saying, “The United States used to be competitive in aerospace, leading the world in spaceflight and launches, but now other countries like China and India are catching up. They’re sending probes to the moon and have plans for Mars.”
In 2011, the Space Shuttle flew for the very last time, leaving Americans unable to reach the stars alone. “We don’t even send our own people up to the ISS anymore,” Patterson laments. Today, American astronauts traveling to the International Space Station must rely on the Russian space agency, a dependence that grows ever more uneasy in light of Russia’s actions regarding recent events in the Ukraine.
In its 50 years, SBSP has been invented, debated, studied, dismissed, and seized as the answer to all our energy problems in turn. That path continues today, with SBSP’s future firmly entwined with the future of space launching capabilities both private and public.
“Space solar power stations really depend on us being able to get up there,” says Patterson. “Right now, private companies seem to be the best hope for its future.”
Timeline of Major Events for Space-Based Solar Power:
- 1887: Photoelectric effect experimentally observed by Heinrich Hertz
- 1905: Albert Einstein publishes theory explaining the photoelectric effect based on quantum physics
- 1913: A solar cell patent is registered with the United States Patent Office
- 1941: Asimov’s “Reason,” featuring society where energy comes from space-based solar, is published
- 1954: The first modern silicon solar cell is invented by Bell Labs
- 1956: Asimov’s “The Last Question” featuring SBS published
- 1957: The Soviet Union successfully launches the first artificial satellite, Sputnik into orbit
- 1958: NASA is founded
- 1964: The rectenna is invented (this is the device that would allow the solar energy in the form of microwaves to be converted to usable electricity for the electrical grid)
- 1968: Space-based solar power is seriously proposed for the first time by Dr. Peter Glasner
- 1969: The U.S. lands a man on the moon
- 1973: A space-based solar power satellite is patented by Dr. Peter Glasner
- 1978: NASA and the Department of Energy perform design and feasibility studies of the SBSP concept
- 1981: NASA launches the Space Shuttle fleet
- 1982: Boeing proposes SBSP concept
- 1995-7: NASA conducts “Fresh Look” study on the viability of SBSP
- 1998: Japan begins work on a SBSP concept
- 1998: International Space Station launched
- 2002: SpaceX founded
- 2011: The Space Shuttle is retired
- 2012: Joint proposal by China and India for a SBSP system
- 2012: John Mankins publishes study about SPS-Alpha, his proposal for an American SBSP system