NASA is reportedly working again on space-based solar power

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NASA has launched a study to reassess the possibility of space-based solar power, a long-promised method of generating electricity from space that may be gaining fresh traction as a result of technology advancements and clean energy initiatives.

Nikolai Joseph of NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy stated the agency was starting a short-term study analyzing the possibilities of space-based solar power, or SBSP, in a presentation at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference on May 27.

“The system’s practicality has altered over time as technology has improved,” he stated. “The goal of this research is to determine how much NASA should assist space-based solar power.” The research will not aim to design a new architecture for SBSP but rather will revisit previous ideas for collecting solar energy in space and transporting it to the ground for conversion to electricity. These revised systems will be compared to terrestrial power systems in order to analyze policy and implementation issues.

It will also look at the costs of such systems, which have been a key roadblock in prior studies going back to the 1970s. “It’ll be a lot of money,” he remarked, “but money isn’t the main factor here.” “It could be OK if the number is enormous and astounding.”

Advancements in a number of technological areas, according to Joseph, offer the agency grounds to reconsider SBSP’s viability. “The elephant in the room is the cost of launch, and launch has gotten much more affordable.” “That radically changes our perspective,” he remarked. Thermal systems, electronics, materials, and solar panels are among the other areas where progress has been made.

According to him, NASA has discussed the research with the US Space Force and other “technical authorities.” There are presently no plans to solicit public feedback via a formal request for information or other means, but he did not rule out doing so in the future. The plan is to conclude the research and deliver it in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in SBSP, including a workshop held by the European Space Agency in December, which Joseph said prompted NASA to explore doing its own investigation. Last year, the British government included SBSP alongside nuclear, wind, and other energy sources as a technology it was investigating.

The need for energy sources that can attain “net-zero” carbon emissions in order to combat climate change is driving much of this attention. “I believe it is one of the most hopeful things we can do from a space standpoint to aid in the preservation of the planet.” During a subsequent discussion on SBSP at the conference, Karen Jones of The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy noted, “We have to get to 2050 net-zero.”

“It simply doesn’t make sense for the US to ignore this,” said Peter Garretson, a retired US Air Force officer who conducted a study on SBSP for the now-defunct National Security Space Office in 2007. Climate change and international rivalry, including suspected Chinese interest in SBSP, were also mentioned by him.

“Even if you believe that space solar power will never be economically viable,” he claimed, “the fact that we are losing the narrative by not doing anything on a global scale makes us appear dumb.”

“Super inexpensive” space access offered by vehicles like SpaceX’s Starship transformed the economics of such a system, according to John Mankins, a longstanding champion for SBSP who conducted prior NASA research on the issue. He said, “Transportation is no longer a factor in the cost calculation.” “Depending on how you do it, this makes space solar power potentially economical.”

According to Joseph, the research will look at the public opinion of space-based solar power as well as prices and regulatory challenges. “We don’t speak much about public perception,” he added, adding that when he describes how such systems would beam electricity back to Earth, people often wonder what that would imply for birds flying across such beams. “I don’t believe it’ll be an issue,” she says, “but I don’t know everything and I need to know.”

Even if the research reveals that SBSP isn’t practical, he believes the study will be beneficial. “It’s a fantastic strawman for figuring out how we approach major situations like this,” he added. “It’s also an excellent approach to think about how big-project policy is built.” “I feel obligated to look into this inside NASA,” he said, “since it’s been around for so long and this notion hasn’t been eliminated yet.” It hasn’t gone away.”

Source: SpaceNews

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