Solar Power Satellites:

An Idea Whose Time Has Come


by Seth Potter

Research Scientist, New York University;
Member of Board of Directors of the Space Frontier Society of New York

For years humanity has dreamed of a clean, inexhaustible energy source. This dream has lead many people to do what, in retrospect, seems obvious, and look upward toward nature's "fusion reactor", the sun. However, while sunlight is clean and inexhaustible (for a few billion years anyway!), it is also dilute and intermittent. These problems led Peter Glaser of the Arthur D. Little Company to suggest in 1968 that solar collectors be placed in geostationary orbit. Such collectors are known as solar power satellites (SPS).

The solar energy collected by an SPS would be converted into electricity, then into microwaves. The microwaves would be beamed to the Earth's surface, where they would be received and converted back into electricity by a large array of devices known as a rectifying antenna, or rectenna. (Rectification is the process by which alternating electrical current, such as that induced by a microwave beam, is converted to direct current. This direct current can then be converted to the "slower" 50 or 60 cycle alternating current that is used by homes, offices, and factories.) At geostationary orbit (36,000 kilometers or 22,000 miles high), the SPS would have a 24-hour orbital period. It would therefore always hover over the same spot on the equator and can keep its beam fixed on a position at a higher latitude. Since the Earth's axis is tilted, an SPS orbiting over the equator wouldswing above or below the Earth's shadow during its daily orbit. Sunlight would not be blocked, except for a period of about an hour eachnight within a few weeks of the equinoxes.

It is interesting to compare the availability of sunlight in space with that on Earth. A solar panel facing the sun in near-Earth space receives about 1400 watts of sunlight per square meter (130 watts per square foot). (Of course, only a fraction of this is usable due to conversion inefficiencies.) On Earth, the day-night cycle cuts this in half. The oblique angle of the sun's rays with respect to the ground (except at noon in the tropics) cuts this in half again for a typical spot on the Earth. (Solar panels on the ground can be angled upward to circumvent this, but they must then be spread out over more ground to avoid casting shadows on each other.) Clouds and atmospheric dust cut the available sunlight in half again. Thus, sunlight is about eight times more abundant in geostationary orbit than it is on the Earth. Although the microwave beam from an SPS would also be dilute, it would be converted to electricity at a greater efficiency than sunlight. However, the largest cost savings in SPS versus terrestrial solar collectors may be the elimination of the need for storage at night (or transmission from the day side of the Earth).

Spurred on by the oil crises of the 1970's, the US Department of Energy and NASA jointly studied the SPS during that decade. The result of this study was a design for an SPS which consisted of a 5 x 10 kilometer (3 x 6 mile) rectangular solar collector and a 1-kilometer-diameter (0.6 mile) circular transmitting antenna array. The SPS would weigh 30,000 to 50,000 metric tons. The power would be beamed to the Earth in the form of microwaves at a frequency of 2.45 GHz (2450 MHz), which can pass unimpeded through clouds and rain. This frequency hasbeen set aside for industrial, scientific, and medical use, and is the same frequency used in microwave ovens. Equipment to generate themicrowaves is therefore inexpensive and readily available, though higher frequencies have been proposed as well. The rectenna array would be an ellipse 10 x 13 kilometers (6 x 8 miles) in size. It could be designed to let light through, so that crops, or even solar panels, could be placed underneath it. The amount of power available to consumers from one such SPS is 5 billion watts. (A typical conventional power plant supplies 500 million to 1 billion watts.) The peak intensity of the microwave beam would be 23 milliwatts per square centimeter (148 milliwatts per square inch). The US standard for industrial exposure to microwaves is 10 milliwatts per square centimeter, while up to 5 milliwatts per square centimeter are allowed to leak from microwave ovens. US standards are based on heating effects. Stricter standards are in effect in some countries. So far, no non-thermal health effects of low-level microwave exposure have been proven, although the issue remains controversial. Nevertheless, even the peak of the beam is not exactly a death ray. Underneath the rectenna, microwave levels are practically nil.

The reason that the SPS must be so large has to do with the physics of power beaming. The smalle rthe transmitter array, the larger the angle of divergence of the transmitted beam. A highly divergent beam will spread out over a great deal of land area, and may be too weak to activate the rectenna. In order to obtain a sufficiently concentrated beam, a great deal of power must be collected and fed into a large transmitter array.

Interest in the SPS concept waned after the 1970's due to the end of the oil crisis and the failure of inexpensive launch systems to materialize. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the SPS, due to concerns about a possible global warming resulting from carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion. A study commissioned by the Space Studies Institute (SSI) has shown that about 98% of the mass of the SPS can consist of materials mined from the moon. A lunar infrastructure would have to exist for this to occur. My own SSI-sponsored work, based on earlier work by Geoffrey Landis and Ronald Cull at the NASA Lewis Research Center, has shown that an SPS could be built using thin-film solar cells deposited on lightweight substrates. Such an SPS could deliver perhaps ten times as much power per unit mass as older designs. The combination of lightweight materials, inexpensive launch systems, and a space infrastructure can make the SPS a reality. No breakthroughs in physics would be required. However, a significant commitment to technology development would be needed.


Text by: Dr. Seth Potter
Image of 'traditional' SPS: SSI
www page by: Rich Brown


Last rev: 27 Dec 1998
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