Ambitious plans for an internationally developed space solar power (SSP) system to provide energy on a global scale by the middle of the century have been unveiled by space pioneer, humanitarian and former Indian President Abdul Kalam.
A longtime champion of space-based solar power, Kalam says the first steps will include the establishment of a “world space knowledge platform” under which teams from the U.S., India, and other spacefaring nations will join forces to develop a “societal” SSP mission. The organization will be made up of “experts from governments, industry and academia,” and include “a coalition of leading academic institutions to do a feasibility study.”
The study will be conducted by teams from a minimum of 10 nations interacting with an international “virtual laboratory” that will be funded “as a cooperative venture” to the tune of $4 billion over five years, Kalam says. Unveiling the plan at the U.S. National Space Society’s International Space Development conference here, where he was presented the Werner Von Braun memorial award, Kalam says the feasibility study will be briefed to participants in upcoming summit meetings of G8 and G20 nations. The process will begin with the creation of a 20-page research document for “marketing” the benefit of the SSP concept to the spacefaring nations.
Kalam outlined a five-point action plan for the first phase but did not specify details of how the funding would be organized. Each of the nations involved in the feasibility study will focus on “clearly defined missions.” The virtual lab will help steer the development of an integrated design that will include the best use of reusable launch vehicles for low-cost access to space, and the optimized design for transmitting SSP power to the Earth’s surface. Focus areas will include comparisons on various single- and two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch concepts under study in China, India, Japan, Russia, U.K., U.S., and other European nations. Others will concentrate on answering energy-transfer-related technology questions over advanced photovoltaic systems and microwave transmission concepts.
Recognizing that technology is only half the battle, Kalam’s plan also includes a parallel track devoted to developing policy and political guidance that will be needed if the SSP concept is to stand a chance of becoming a reality. An advisory committee, working with the virtual lab, will help craft the beginnings of a policy document that will continue to evolve as the various nations commit to participate in the SSP mission.
The overall notion of space solar power, he says, is “scalable, safe and global, provides continuous power and needs no fundamental breakthroughs in technology.” Kalam says the scale of the SSP project will have spin-off benefits, triggering the “industrialization” of space and building a robust infrastructure for access to low and geostationary Earth orbit that will benefit other projects like asteroid and lunar mining, as well as exploration.
However, while welcoming the initiative’s spirit, other U.S. groups have criticized the plan for lacking fiscal reality. “It lacked money, but more importantly it lacked the necessary business perspective,” says Daren Preble, executive director of the U.S.-based Space Solar Power Institute. “To create a viable SSP business is very different than sending a satellite to the Moon for science. It is instead like sending a satellite to orbit for a real-world business venture, such as a communications satellite. This is the only perspective that can create a functioning business.”
Preble cites the formation in Japan of a public-private SSP development project as a better way to proceed, along the lines of the Comsat Corp. created by the U.S. Congress in 1962 to help kick-start the satcom market. “We also should now charter another public/private corporation to develop a power satellite industry to transfer our energy dependency away from fossil fuels directly to the Sun itself. This will happen. The only question is who will develop it first.”