Center for Strategic Communication

Space SOlarThe world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels is turning to alternative energies to meet its demands. The Department of Defense spends billions of dollars a year on fuel costs. As traditional sources of power have steadily increased in price, the military is forced to search for new solutions to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Renewable energy for military purposes is nothing new. Solar, wind, geothermal, have all been used by the military in a variety of capacities. However, a new method of collecting solar energy for military use is being developed by the U.S Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). This method involves building technology that sends a sandwich-like module into space with photovoltaic panels on one side to collect energy from the sun’s rays. From there, an electronics system in the middle of the module converts the energy into a radio frequency that is then transferred to an antenna on the bottom of the module which then transfers the energy to earth. Otherwise known as space-based solar power, this method of collecting energy can provide limitless military and civilian applications.

Such technology has long been talked about but the capital costs and technological requirements to have a solar satellite rotating around earth have proven difficult barriers to overcome. Current research is focused on reducing the weight of the modules so that the cost of launching the modules into space is low cost.

Furthermore, scientists are looking into the logistics of how to turn multiple modules into an array of solar panels in space. Currently, the International Space Station stretches about the size of a football field whereas an array of panels would be about nine times that. One solution to this, which requires more research, is to send the modules into space separately and then have them assembled by robots.

There is still some work to be done but current research looks promising. The International Academy of Astronautics recently stated that space-based solar power would be viable within 30 years. Moreover, private companies have been created to build space solar power. Solaren Corp, for example, made an agreement in 2009 with California Utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to sell the power generated from the space solar arrays to the electric company by 2016. Hopefully, these types of private investments can create further incentives for the development and deployment of space-based solar power technology.

The benefits of this method over traditional forms of solar power are readily apparent. For example, the satellites are constantly collecting the sun’s rays whereas ground-based solar panels don’t collect as much of the sun’s rays because of weather conditions.

In November 2011, a proposal for Space Based Solar Power was discussed at ASP. We know that the military would benefit immensely from this technology. First, it would save billions in fuel costs since bases could easily be supplied with energy collected from these satellites rather than conventional fuel sources. Second, it grant the military ultimate flexibility because space-based solar power can be redirected anywhere on the planet. It would allow for power in bases that are far off or secluded and eliminate the need for long supply lines. The promise is there, but will the technology and costs meet the challenge?

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