What does CNN do when the people start to panic?

Bring back the dreams of a technological fix followed by a utopia.

This time its space solar. Sounds pretty futuristic and cool, eh? In fact, I found a more balanced article on space solar from seven years ago, even managing to have the same graphic. It seems the only thing that has changed is that the Pentagon took another look at the possibility, energy costs a lot now, and the idea was still first introduced in 1968.

The writer of the article, Lara Farrar, even manages to slip in some unevaluated claims to give hope to those who were starting to worry if we were running out of the black stuff.

“A single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous Earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today,” the report said.

Hear that? We just have to put a bunch of microwaves into space, and we will have all the power we could ever want, and it will be green. If there’s something I learned playing Sim City 2000, its that microwave power is going to be invented in 2025 and if we just get to 2050, fusion will come along. The only problem is that I fear a microwave power plant is going to cost a little more than 30,000 simoleons.

In fact, the estimated cost in the 1970’s, according to John Mankins, President of the Space Power Association, was $1 trillion. In today’s dollars, we’re talking $4 trillion. Not exactly realistic. The article claims we could see the first power satellite by 2020 if we started acting now. Somehow, only the engineering and cost challenges are mentioned. Here’s a few other things to consider.

  • International cooperation and agreements would almost certainly be required for something of this scale and power.  The article, however, likes to look at this idea from a strategic point of view.

“The country that takes the lead on space solar power will be the energy-exporting country for the entire planet for the next few hundred years,” Miller said.

The study also concluded that solar energy from satellites could provide power for global U.S. military operations

  • There isn’t exactly a recent history of competent space program or engineering in space.  Can we so easily forget the shuttle program, Hubble Space Telescope, delays in the International Space Station, or Mars satellites that just “disappear”?
  • The danger posed to any space system from objects and radiation.
  • The large amount of time it would take to complete the whole system, given the inability to make frequent manned trips into space.
  • It’s also helpful for Farrar to ignore the issue how much of this energy could actually be harnessed, transmitted back to earth, and then distributed.
If there were unlimited time, resources and money, space solar would definitely be something to look into.  Since there is a lack of all three of those, terrestrial means of solving our problems should be looked at before we get lost in dreams.  It’s news stories like this that lead people on to thinking that “they” must be working on something, and that there is nothing to worry about.  At some point you have to turn off the SciFi channel, just don’t then tune into CNN.

One Response

  1. I saw the same couple of articles and was intrigued, but there is frightfully little information about the specifics. The suggestion that India will be able to achieve this in 2020 is nothing short of preposterous. From what I can tell, the most viable option is the geosynchronous orbit, because it will require only one earth-based station and a minimal amount of international cooperations and trajectory calculations. Every source seems to indicate that getting things that far into space is still remarkably expensive, both in terms of launch costs and depreciation/maintenance.

    The perks are that the geosynchronous power plant will be in sunlight almost all the time, and that if we’re going into space anyway, some of the technological development that must be done will happen anyway. I can’t find numbers anywhere that reflect the actual viability of this. Hopefully things have improved since the 1970s, but I can’t imagine this appearing in the near future.

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