This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.
Military planners responsible for finding space resources to support troops on the ground think the time may be ripe to advance the 40-year-old space solar power concept to help reduce the logistics train behind forward-deployed forces.
The concept of collecting solar energy above the atmosphere and beaming it to the ground as microwaves or lasers has long been seen among military freethinkers as a way to get electricity to remote airfields, fire bases or other distant outposts without having to haul fuel for diesel generators.
But that out-of-the-box concept may be gaining new life as the incoming administration looks for "green-energy" technologies to reduce reliance on foreign oil, and technologists home in on the hardware that would be needed to orbit deployable sunlight collectors measuring kilometers across and get power down from them to troops on the ground. Engineers studying space solar power (SSP) believe a pilot plant could be orbited fairly soon.
"The end game needs to have a pilot plant in operation within 10 to 12 years," said John Mankins, chief operating officer of Managed Energy Technologies and a longtime SSP advocate. "By pilot plant I mean a small but full-scale operational system delivering megawatts of power to the Earth."
The price tag would be relatively small by Pentagon standards, at least initially. Mankins estimates an end-to-end systems study, with some early lab work and low-cost flight-tests, would cost about $100 million and take about three years.
The Pentagon's National Security Space Office proposed just such a study in a report on SSP as "an opportunity for strategic security" released in October 2007. "It's being talked about," said a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in the absence of policy guidance. "Part of the problem has to do with perception... It's [about] roles and responsibilities, and having people get over the giggle factor, that this is actually something that's real."
Mankins said a pilot plant delivering 5-10 megawatts "does mesh nicely" with a notional military requirement for a system to deliver power from space to forward-deployed forces. To meet the 10-year timeline for a pilot plant, he said, it would take another three years after the systems study to put together a flight demonstration in low-Earth orbit, and another four to six years after that to get a pilot plant in geostationary orbit.
The National Security Space Office concluded that "while significant technical challenges remain, space-based solar power is more technically executable than ever before and current technological vectors promise to further improve its viability," according to the 2007 report. "A government-led demonstration of proof-of-concept could serve to catalyze commercial sector development."
For the Pentagon, there would be distinct tactical benefits even from a pilot plant. It could be a "disruptive game changer on the battlefield," the report said, providing "energy on demand" across a military theater and potentially supporting "entirely new force structures and capabilities such as ultra long-endurance airborne or terrestrial surveillance or combat systems to include the individual soldier himself."
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