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Space Power as An Alternate Energy Source for Earth?

As the United States and other nations scramble for alternative sources of energy that can outdo expensive, and limited, coal and oil, the Pentagon has backed a solution that is, literally, out of this world: space-based solar power.

space power

Scientists have envisioned antennas that are three miles by six miles wide that could capture limitless energy from space.

The idea is not exactly new. NASA and Japanese and European space agencies have been exploring it since the 1960s, trying to figure out how to harness the extreme power of solar energy, which is eight times stronger in outer space than it is when it reaches Earth.

Now, the Defense Department released a 75-page study for its National Security Space Office that found space power could be utilized with available technology, except that the process is currently not cost-effective.

Space power would be collected by massive solar panels onboard satellites. The energy captured would then be converted into microwaves and transmitted to Earth, where it would become direct-current electricity.

However, thousands of tons of equipment would need to be lifted into space, and this is currently very expensive.

Current costs of transporting equipment into orbit via space shuttle are around $20,000 per "kilogram of payload," which is the carrying capacity of a space vehicle. To be feasible, experts say the payload cost would need to be below $200 per kilogram, and the total expense of delivery and assembly below $3,500 per kilogram.

A Pacific Island Experiment

The idea presents enough promise that American entrepreneur Kevin Reed has proposed an experiment that will take place in the tiny western Pacific island nation of Palau.

The experiment involves putting up a 260-foot-diameter "rectifying antenna," known as a rectenna, on one of Palau's uninhabited islands. The rectenna will be sent 1 megawatt of power -- enough to provide 1,000 homes with power -- from a satellite in orbit above Earth.

space power

Solar energy is eight times stronger in outer space than it is when it reaches Earth.

The $800-million study will be intended to show the safety and effectiveness of space power, and may be completed as early as 2012.

The study would focus on low-orbiting satellites that pass over once every 90 minutes, allowing a time span of about five minutes to collect the energy.

On a grander scale, other studies have focused on geostationary satellites that are much higher and remain in place over one location. These satellites are the ones that could emit a steady flow of power. The ramifications of such powerful beams, which could flow between three-by-six mile solar panels and rectennas on Earth, are unknown.

While smaller panels may emit beams about as powerful as those from your microwave oven, high-power beams could be dangerous, and would at least need to be surrounded by no-fly zones for aircraft, and no-admittance zones for people.

Though its practical applications are a few years off, for now work toward a future generated by space power is moving full-speed ahead.

"The climate change implications are pretty clear. You can get basically unlimited carbon-free power from this," Mark Hopkins, senior vice president of the National Space Society in Washington, told the Associated Press.

"You just have to find a way to make it cost-effective."

Recommended Reading

Alternative Fuels: Exactly What are the Best Prospects for Escaping Energy Dependency

How "Extremophiles" in Toxic Waste Sites May Hold the Cure to Cancer


Associated Press December 23, 2007

USINFO August 20, 2007

MSNBC April 11, 2007

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