The ISS streaks across the sky over Sandbanks in Dorset, England. Image courtesy Chris Daborn/Flickr Creative Commons.
On some clear nights, if looking up at the night sky, one might catch a glimpse of bright shining objects moving rapidly across the atmosphere, flashing in the dark like a collection of short-lived falling stars. This object is the International Space Station, its hulking football-field-sized metal frame and solar panel array reflecting light from the sun back to Earth.
On Tuesday, March 25th, 2014, American astronaut Steve Swanson and two Russian cosmonauts blast off in Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, heading to the International Space Station (or ISS for short) to take their place as part of the crew for six months. NASA joyfully tweeted through their NASA_Astronauts Twitter handle, “And follow #Swanny as he becomes first @NASA_Astronaut to Instagram from space!”
Not only will Steve “Swanny” Swanson Instagram from orbit aboard the ISS, he and his fellow crew mates use the internet, heat up their food, and breathe oxygen pumped throughout the station. All these tasks require power, but in space there are no coal plants or fossil-fuel burning electric plants, which contribute to global warming and dramatic upheaval for life where these kinds of energies do exist here on Earth. Instead, the ISS relies on the aforementioned solar array of eight panels to generate all energy needs during the typical sixth month stay of an astronaut on the ISS, which has been inhabited continuously by human crew members since November 2nd, 2000.
That means for over a decade, the ISS has relied solely on space-based solar power to operate.
When asked about the most quintessentially “New York” experience, Manhattanites will likely rave about some swanky rooftop club on top of a hotel, running along the Hudson through Riverside Park, or the amazing chocolates that can only be found in Chelsea market. To an outsider, however, “New York City” can be represented with one image—Times Square. Massive skyscrapers that are relentlessly lit up with mega television screens, large crowds of people, and traffic littered with taxicabs.
Each of the former images seems to represent the vivacity of the city; however, each also requires an excessive amount of energy.Taking the Manhattanite’s second suggestion to run along Riverside Park, visitors may be taken aback by the wide-open horizon sprinkled with sailboats. Within the juxtaposition between these two contrasting images of New York, it should be noted that that latter features a primitive technology that could be very relevant for powering the former—in this case sailboats harnessing wind for energy. With improvements in technology, harnessing energy from renewable resources to help alleviate the impact of fossil fuels seems attainable.
The Impact of Fossil Fuels
The progress seen in the developed world in places like New York City has been driven by a dependence on coal and petroleum-based fuel sources. As these energy sources are continually depleted by the comforts of the modern world, nations have felt the need to form alliances and wage wars in order to gain access to these valuable remnants. While these nonrenewables have indeed allowed for major technological advances including fast and easy transportation, readily available entertainment, indoor plumbing—in essence all the comforts afforded by the average American lifestyle—they have been exploited to an extreme degree. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that coal consumption for 2012 reached 889,185 thousand tons and natural gas reached 25,533 billion cubic feet; similarly, Americans consumed approximately 18,877 thousand barrels of petroleum per day. The massive consumption of these fossil fuels has contributed to over 6,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide being released annually from the U.S. alone. The abuse of fossil fuels has had a significant negative effect on the global climate. The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide as a by-product, which increases the concentration of the greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere, and raises the earth’s temperature.
A concept for a space-based solar power satellite. Image © Mafic Studio, Inc.
“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.
While driving north through Indiana en route to Chicago in the middle of the night, drivers will likely find themselves suddenly surrounded by a sea of red blinking lights. They don’t signify a nearby airport or some secret government operation. Instead, the red lights simply indicate the tops of turbines—or high tech windmills. In the sunlight, I-65 adopts a yellow-brick road quality, the sheer magnitude of the extraordinary wind farm that stretches for miles actually visible. The behemoths adopt a sleek and graceful quality, their blades dancing in sync high above the scattered tree line. This particular operation, the Meadow Lake Wind Farm, consists of 303 turbines that produce approximately 500 MW of power, or enough energy to power 150,000 to 300,000 homes per year. Meadow Lake Wind is one of 28 North American farms operated by Spain-based EDP-Renewables, whose combined output equals nearly 3,700 MW. At the moment, growth of the wind industry in the US has been slow. But experts argue that with increased support of wind farming in the US, there is an opportunity to avoid sole reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuel sources for energy. One day soon, we may find ourselves not relying on the Kansas oil fields anymore.
Photo courtesy SPS-ALPHA/http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/716070main_Mankins_2011_PhI_SPS_Alpha.pdf
Twenty-two thousand miles above the Earth, an array of silicon glitters in the sunlight, quietly beaming power down to the planet below and providing energy to millions. One-hundred million miles away, a single photon leaves the sun, rocketing at the speed of light towards Earth. Upon arrival, the photon hits the silicon array of the solar cells in geosynchronous orbit, where the cell transforms the raw energy of the sun into microwaves, which are beamed down to a receiving station on Earth. Once at the receiving station, this power is fed onto the electric grid where it can now be used to power cities and homes. Behold, the possibilities of space-based solar power.