Space-Based Solar Power

a public discussion sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation

Scientific Challenges

Posted by Coyote on June 9, 2007

All,

Many credible scientists and engineers tell us that we have concluded all of the science we need to make space-based solar power work. It is now just a matter of advancing the technology and logistics to make it economically feasible. Is this right?

Coyote

About these ads

41 Responses to “Scientific Challenges”

  1. shubber said

    Many credible scientists and engineers tell us that we have concluded all of the science we need to make space-based solar power work.

    If by “science” you are referring to the ability to turn sunlight into electrical energy, and to convert that energy into another wavelength for beaming purposes, then, yes, we have all of the science we need…

    It is now just a matter of advancing the technology to make it economically feasible.

    Ah, there’s the rub. The cost of doing so, of creating a Geostationary 10km solar power array for the conversion of sunlight into energy to be beamed in concentrated form to the Earth for our use, well, we don’t really have that technology.

    Sure, we could (in theory) use a LOT of big dumb boosters to build the thing – if you have tens of billions of dollars to burn up on expendable rockets. But, assuming you managed to design, and then compartmentalize, the total SSPS into a bunch of rockets (plus spares, for the few that will suffer launch failures along the way – just sheer statistics dictates that) – you still have another hurdle:

    On orbit assembly.

    Now i’m not talking about 6 hour spacewalks to fix an antenna at the ISS (which is only in LEO, a couple hundred miles up). I’m talking about building a massive facility at Geostationary orbit (36,000 km up) which might be feasible on the drawing boards but far exceeds the scale and ability of anything we’ve done to date in space.

    So: how to solve the problem?

    There are two steps, I would suggest, which should be done in parallel – because both are needed. 1, do a very small scale demonstrator satellite at GEO – completely robotic, built on an existing GEO platform so as to minimize costs (still going to cost $100m or more just for the sat bus and launch). No point pursuing SSPS if it turns out not to work for reasons we simply can’t predict yet. Second, build cheap reusable reliable access to space (CRATS). Without it, on orbit assembly, space lift, all sorts of things become too expensive and unwieldy.

    After we’ve done that, we may actually be able to build and operate one of these things….

  2. Lee S Valentine said

    Cheap access to space implies reliable access to space. This point is not often appreciated. A moment’s reflection shows why it must be so. Firstly, if the space transporter is lost even so often as every ten thousandth flight, the replacement cost will dominate the cost. Secondly,at such a rate of loss,flight insurance will be expensive.

    One implied point of Shubber’s post is that is it difficult to scale technologies up in size. That point is generally true across a variety of engineering disciplines and it implies that the first fully reusable space transporters will be small.

  3. Sam Dinkin said

    It may be easier to advance science to enable more mass efficient space solar cells, scientific breakthroughs enabling more capable propulsion, more unusual arrays (e.g., LEO constellations), than to advance technology and logistics (and financing!) to make ends meet. A big push would be to account for the security costs that energy dependence and money transfers to rival regimes are costing us. If that accounting amount were capitalized, we would see well that a variety of alternatives are actually competitive.

    Technology and logistics will eventually get us there, but there are many scientific wildcards that can get us there sooner.

    We have already been powering billions of dollars of satellite equipment with space-based solar cells for decades.

  4. spacepolicy said

    To be clear, when we say “cheap acces to space”, we mean REALLY cheap access to space. The ONLY way we can get there is with highly reusable spaceships … which we might as well call spaceplanes.

    By “spaceplanes”, I don’t mean they will have wings (they may or may not). What I mean is:

    They will be reusable like airplanes.

    They will have rapid turn-around like airplanes.

    They will have high flight rates like airplanes.

    They will be operate like, and be maintained like, airplanes.

    Upon examination, it can be seen that every other key condition & requirement for economically viable space-solar-power first needs “cheap access to space”. To illustrate — we will develop an economically viable, growing and successful on-orbit assembly industry after we get cheap access to space.

    – Charles

  5. shubber said

    Cheap access to space implies reliable access to space. This point is not often appreciated.

    Indeed, that’s why I have always touted CRATS and not CATS, because of how important the R (reliable & reusable) part of the equation is to the overall economic model.

    You are also absolutely correct on engineering scaling issues and the need for different architectures as you change size.

    The first step, though, to fixing the problems created 40 years ago in the race to the Moon is to put the development of such technology firmly back in the camp of the organisation with the resources and operational experience to actually make it work: the DoD. NASA is good at some things, including R&D, but not operations, nor should it be.

    I wonder if the report will actually look at the broader range of issues which will impact SSP…? Coyote?

  6. Bob Werb said

    First, let me say how happy I am that the Space Frontier Foundation can host this much needed discussion.

    I agree with Shubber that we need both a small scale demonstrator and Cheap Access to Space. (I even agree with Lee that the R for reliable is implied.)

    Enough agreeing… 

    The third near-term need is an environmental impact study for SSP. The list of unknowns is lengthy (I’ll leave it to Margo to post some) and much work is needed to inform later work. The frequency to use, the nature of rectennas and the choice of orbit are all variables that may have significant environmental consequences.

    So I see three major near-term actions that could be taken to determine if SSP makes real world sense. In addition to bringing us closer to a possible SSP all three have the added advantage being useful undertakings on their own for a variety of reasons.

    I remain a skeptic that SSP will ever leap over all of the needed hurdles. I know for sure that it never will unless we try.

  7. Coyote said

    Shubber, Charles, Sam, Bob & Lee,

    Really cheap means really reliable and really reusable. Got it.

    CRATS, not CATS. Charles, can you buy that???

    A small scale demo is required. Bob, what type of demo? What type of demo would capture imaginations enough to get people on board with space-based solar power???

    Cheers!

    Coyote

  8. Sam Dinkin said

    For something like solar cells, cheap and unreliable is possible. But if delivery’s single use and has only an 80% chance of getting to space, it has to cost less all in than the bank payment on the reusable “space plane” and its operating costs. Enough less to cover the shrinkage because not everything gets delivered. Today, it sure looks like space planes is the way to go, but we also use paper plates. A compromise might be two multi-use stages and a throw away third stage. It’s tricky to figure out which way is best. One way is to revive Poindexter’s policy futures exchange. An exchange could give you the best information about which technology will cost more, be developed first, which one is more likely to be successfully developed, when will it be developed and so on. Another is to use substantial prizes (that are pre-paid insurance policies held off shore for example) to credibly commit to use following private development. (Yay Newt!)

  9. shubber said

    what type of demo? What type of demo would capture imaginations enough to get people on board with space-based solar power???

    Coyote,

    here’s my suggestion: put together a small sat demonstrator using an established GEO bus (preferably an older model that costs less, assuming one is available like the 376 – now boeing but a hughes platform) to do a test of basic power beaming, focusing, conversion, etc. The target shouldn’t be large scale power generation, but rather a demonstrator with military use (so as to get buy in and value from your ultimate boss/sponsor), such as beaming a small amount of power to a desert location, or maybe downlink to DG in the Indian Ocean… The launch could probably be done on a Delta II, so all up you’re still looking at (depending on how much leverage you have if you use an industry partner like Boeing for the entire value chain) $100m for the project, give or take $50m.

    Second, if that works, then you’ll have demonstrated some of the core technology pieces, now it becomes a matter of scale and business model – both of which are still hurdles, but you’ve broken the problem into more bite-sized chunks.

    Just my $0.02 on a friday morning in (rainy) Sydney.

  10. Everette said

    The way I see it major space access needs to be broken down into 2 sectors, RLVs for putting humans into space (kinda expensive) and putting CARGO into space which can be done for dirt cheap using a rail to orbit system…

  11. Brian Wang said

    Use magnetically inflated cable or space bubbles

    Magnetically inflated cable would expand a large structure like a thin film mirrored surface for a solar concentrator. You can get about a 1km in size structure with existing materials onto a dumb rocket able to loft 100 tons.

    A 400 MW system (page 27 of the Powell Magnetically inflated cable PDF on magnetically inflated cable) could be made using 40% efficient solar cells. The Powell reference quotes 20% efficient cells. 913 meter concentrator diameter. Spectrolab has made 40.7% efficient multijunction cells under 1000 concentration. Total system weight 92.6 tons.

    Do not construct anything in space if you do not have to.
    Just use sytems with magnetic or photonic positioning and formation flying. This avoids the need for costly and dangerous astronaut construction.

    Our cheapest current option is cheap dumb rockets with the least ground crew and support staff.
    Current-and-recent-space-launch-costs.htm

    laser arrays and magnetic launch.

    Landis PDF on reinventing space based solar power

    More efficient wireless power tranmission 5.8 GHz

    At 5.8 GHz, DC-RF converters with efficiencies over 80% are achievable today. Rectennas developed at 5.8 GHz have also been measured with efficiencies greater than 80%. With optimized components in both the transmitter and rectenna, an SPS system has the potential of a DC-to-DC efficiency of 45%.

    Space solar power programs and microwave wireless power transmission technology
    McSpadden, J.O.; Mankins, J.C.
    Microwave Magazine, IEEE
    Volume 3, Issue 4, Dec 2002 Page(s): 46 – 57

    Thus the 400MW system would get 180MW to the ground.

  12. Brian Wang said

    Launching 92.6 tons to orbit is currently tough because we only have rockets able to loft 20-25 tons (Proton, Delta IV)

    If we do scale up one of those or wait for Angara or one of the heavy lift rockets in development to come along.

    At $3000 per kg it would cost abuot 280 million for the launch vehicle. Then however much it costs for the 913 meter thin mirror surface that is folded up into the nose cone for magnetic inflation with superconducting cable.

    the 400MW (180MW to the ground) system that is posited in the prior post (mainly from the Powell reference study) looks like $1 billion for the contents and the launch, plus whatever it costs for R&D and your ground receiving system.

    About 1 to 1.5 billion kwh. With amortized costs it is not hugely out of line price wise. It is not cheaper than the cheapest sources but not bad for a first decent sized system. Plus the power could be used for space infrastructure. Power other communication satellites and space operations etc…

  13. spacepolicy said

    Coyote,

    First, I agree that RELIABLE is a key criteria. It just was always implied for me. If a 747 was not reliable as an airplane, if the 747 fell out of the sky 1% of the time, or 0.1% of the time, then it would not be cheap. Same goes for spaceplanes. I always liked CATS, but if you want to say CRATS (like Shubber suggests) please do so.

    Next, I actually like Bob’s proposal for an environmental impact statement. Let me expand on Bob’s arguments.

    One of the key issues here is to create trust with influential 3rd parties. There is a LOT of distrust among private citizens, and among organized non-profit groups, of the intentions of government agencies. One way to deal with this is to open up the process, and deal in an open way with the negative impacts of SSP (and the potential negative impacts) via an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Since we are not in a big hurry to start beaming power from GEO to Earth in large quantities, we have plenty of time to do this right.

    Looking at it from the opposite side makes this clear. If you don’t have an open process to look at the negative impacts, many will automatically leap to negative interpretations. Many wild claims will ensue … that the government is hiding something really bad. Our imaginations are usually worse than the truth.

    So, I think that starting an EIS process, and doing so early, is a good step. One of the outcomes of this process is that it will become clear that a lot of research on various issues is needed.

    The fact that we are doing real research on the nature of the negative impacts will also be a confidence builder. We could even involve many of the environmental groups in this research, and in the overall EIS process. This too is a way to build trust, and to educate them about the possibilities of SSP. If we want to develop and grow allies, and build trust into the process, an EIS is a good way to go in my opinion.

    – Charles

  14. spacepolicy said

    There are many other capabilities we need beyond CATS/CRATS. But I think most of these capabilities become eminently achievable, if not almost a done deal, after we achieve CATS/CRATS.

    One of those strategic capabilities is a *commercial* on-orbit satellite assembly, maintenance and repair industry. This capability is absolutely required for SSP to be successful, but I think this capability is a natural next step after we achieve CATS.

    It is clear to me, as the CEO of commercial space firm that is focused on commercial on-orbit operations, that after the current huge barrier to LEO comes down, that their are many relatively near-term applications and requirements for on-orbit satellite assembly, repair and maintentance. My company, CSI, was founded on one potential on-orbit repair/maintenance solution that did not even require CATS. We are now focused on just one application of orbital space tugs.

    If we get CATS, some pretty neat things will soon follow, and we will see lots of commercial industrial activity in Earth orbit. These new markets and capabilities will expand the commercial space market in many ways, which will in turn increase the demand for flights to Earth orbit, which will (again) drive the down the cost per pound to orbit … which will enable new economic activities. In other words, we create a virtuous cycle.

    Our job is to figure out how to jump-start this virtuous cycle.

    – Charles

  15. Brian Wang said

    Proton M can place up to 22 tonnes (48,500 lbm) in low Earth orbit with a 51.6-degree inclination. The price to LEO is $1443/lb. Close to $3000/kg. Each launch is 70 million.

    After a piggyback demo flights and R&D of magnetic inflation. Then we could go for a close to 100 Megawatt system (magnetic inflation of mirrored solar concentrator) that maxes out a Proton M.

    An efficient program seems like it use existing technology and get up the 100MW system for less than $1 billion including all development. $150 million for launches and 350 million for the system and $200 million for ground receiving and $300 million for ops and development.

    ===========

    Elon Musk has stated several times that the point is to get costs below $1000/kg. A 100,000-kg-to-LEO vehicle priced at $500/kg would be $50M per launch.

    A discussion of ways to improve and scale what SpaceX is doing

    http://ambivalentengineer.blogspot.com/2006/02/why-merlin-2.html

    That kind of price and you could have fairly competitive system that could be scaled for competitive power supply

  16. spacepolicy said

    WANG: A 100,000-kg-to-LEO vehicle priced at $500/kg would be $50M per launch.

    In other words, you are specifying a Saturn 5 class vehicle that will cost less than SpaceX is currently charging for its Falcon 9 Heavy (Proton class). I don’t know of anybody who is realistically proposing an ELV that can meet that price target today.

    Others have shown that you need to get below $500/kg for SSP to be economical.

    The only conventional way — that I know of — that we might get to

  17. John Lee said

    I don’t think we are going to achieve
    cheap access to space using heavy
    launch rockets. Several years ago
    NASA funded a study lead by Dr.
    Bradley Edwards to determine if a
    Space Elevator could be constructed
    with present day technologies. His
    group concluded that there was no
    reason the Elevator couldn’t be
    built.
    The estimated cost: 10-12 billion
    over a 10-15 year time frame. The
    cost to place one pound into any
    orbit would be $100. This price
    would drop to around $10/lb over
    time. You can’t even fly 1st class
    to Europe for less.
    We can continue with the old ways
    that are both expensive and dangerous
    or we can build the Space Elevator and stand back to watch humanity
    move into space in mass.

  18. shubber said

    Several years ago NASA funded a study lead by Dr. Bradley Edwards to determine if a Space Elevator could be constructed with present day technologies.

    Oh, Really?

    So Dr. Edwards has a warehouse full of extremely resilient carbon nanotube fibers that have demonstrated the strength required to actually support the loads a space elevator cable would undergo? Or are you simply extrapolating from “we have nanotubes, therefore making the UberTube is just a matter left for the student”…?

  19. Brian Wang said

    Elon Musk was the one who mentioned the goal. Which I indicated and provide more details on below. But as I indicated we can use what we have now a Proton launch at about $3000/kg for 20-25 tons to put up a 100MW system OR use one of other systems for 20-25 tons. Provide power for communication and other satellites and for systems to help boost things from LEO seems the best use of the power. Not try to compete with cheaper ground based power but use it where it costs the most now, which is in space.

    Details from wikipedia and other sources:
    In addition to the Falcon 9, SpaceX has announced plans for the development of the Merlin 2 engine, a scale version of a larger F-1-class engine to be developed in the future. The company is rumored to be working on a very large rocket to accompany the F-1-class engine, known by the codename “BFR”. In the past, Musk has said “Long-term plans call for development of a heavy lift product and even a super-heavy, if there is customer demand. We expect that each size increase would result in a meaningful decrease in cost per pound to orbit. For example, dollar cost per pound to orbit dropped from $4,000 to $1,300 ($8,800/kg to $2,900/kg) between Falcon 1 and Falcon 5. Ultimately, I believe $500 per pound ($1,100/kg) or less is very achievable.” On other occasions, Musk has stated that he expects to be able to offer a price of $1,000 per kilogram by 2010

    http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/content/?cid=4062

    In 2005, Elon Musk revealed his conceptual ambitions for a 100 tons to LEO rocket, colorfully nicknamed the ‘BFR’. Musk made the revelation when he spoke at the small SpaceVision2005 conference of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).

    Merlin 2
    The Merlin 2 is a planned future development with F-1-class performance currently under development by SpaceX. It is a considerable upgrade from its predecessors (Merlin 1A and Merlin 1B), and is better classified as an entirely new engine.
    Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, has stated that the Merlin 2 will be a powerful, regeneratively cooled engine. It is intended to be a scaled down version of a future planned engine who’s performance will be in the range of the famed F-1 used on the Saturn V rockets that sent men to the moon, around 1.5 million lbf (6.7 MN of thrust). Merlin 2 is intended for use on SpaceX’s future “BFR”. The Merlin 2 itself will be a modest upgrade to the Merlin 1, featuring a regeneratively cooled nozzle, higher chamber pressure and higher specific impulse. Upgrading the Falcon 9 to Merlin 2 engines should allow Falcon 9 to compete with Sea Launch’s Zenit in all weight classes.

    http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2007/04/17/213315/spacex-looks-at-saturn-v-class.html

    Quote from April 2007, “If we do a larger engine it would be in the Saturn V F-1 engine class,” says chief executive Elon Musk.

  20. John Lee said

    So Dr. Edwards has a warehouse full of extremely resilient carbon nanotube fibers that have demonstrated the strength required to actually support the loads a space elevator cable would undergo?

    True, there remains much research and development. If we were
    to spend only one half of what a Shuttle Mission cost, we could
    have a very good idea whether carbon nanotube fibers are
    resilient enough to support the loads required.

    We have spent over 50 years researching Rocket designs; now, just
    how close are we to putting a payload into space for $100/lb, or
    at any reasonable cost that would allow us to have a major
    presence in space?

    Rocket power is expensive and does not appear to be getting very
    much cheaper, even after 50 yrs. Maybe, there is a better way,
    but we won’t find out if we dismiss new ideas without careful
    consideration. Any SSP deployment is many years of research and
    development away; with proper funding, the Space Elevator idea
    could be ready just when we need it most.

    SSP is a great idea, whose time will never come unless we can
    first, get it there!

  21. Bob Werb said

    >what type of demo? What type of demo would capture imaginations
    >enough to get people on board with space-based solar power???

    Shubber’s suggestion makes sense if “doing a mission” is the only alternative and I’m quick to admit that it may well be.

    If, however, a more creative approach is possible it would be more effective to figure out what such a mission would accomplish and cost and instead of contracting it out take the entire amount and offer a prize.

    This large of a prize would inspire multiple efforts and creative solutions.

  22. Brian Wang said

    Btw: in terms of really cheap rockets

    There was project Orion, which I noted would technically have worked like a champ for getting into space on the cheap.

    Because of faulty risk perceptions and public relations problems. I recognize that Project Orion will not happen barring some unforeseen change of heart.

    However, newer nuclear approaches such as minimag Orion and advancing technology for repeatable z-pinches could enable a nuclear powered option that is palletable to those who only want nuclear bombs to used as weapons for threatening.

    Hopefully the public relations safe nuclear external pulse propulsion, we can get down to the 70 cents per kilogram of project Orion, but we are looking at several decades of delay to develop a public relations safe version. The kind of technology for a space elevator is about on par with a more public relations safe external pulse propulsion system.

    Of course with 70 cents per kilogram space technology the price of electricity will go way down so solar space power will have continually higher bars to clear. But long term to get to Kardashev 2 we need the resources in the solar system.

  23. shubber said

    John Lee: True, there remains much research and development. If we were
    to spend only one half of what a Shuttle Mission cost, we could
    have a very good idea whether carbon nanotube fibers are
    resilient enough to support the loads required.

    See, now THAT I would support – spending money on long term R&D. But first you have to be honest about claims and admit that it IS long term R&D, as opposed to saying, um, something like: “His group concluded that there was no reason the Elevator couldn’t be built (with present day technologies).”

    BIG difference.

    As to rocketry, the primary reason costs haven’t gone down (besides inflation – have you looked at how much the US dollar has depreciated since the Apollo days..? But that’s another analysis in and of itself…) is because we are essentially still doing the same thing we’d done 40 years ago. Big Dumb Expendable Boosters (TM).

    Of course it won’t change.

    Now to your second comment:
    with proper funding, the Space Elevator idea could be ready just when we need it most.

    And just when exactly is that? I noticed a large amount of rhetoric and scant amounts of actual date/time information. 20 years? 50 years? next year?

    Finally, I’m offended by the assertion that I, or other skeptics or non Kool-Aid drinkers are dismissing “new ideas without careful consideration.” If anything, we have to (repeatedly) spend time refuting the same boosterish nonsense from the starry eyed crowds that go on about L-5 colonies, asteroid mining, lunar bases, and yes, space elevators without bothering to actually address those pesky little subject areas of economics, physics, medicine, and such. It’d be a lot easier to actually make progress in the space sector if those people would just go back to watching the Star Trek marathon on cable and leave the work to the adults.

  24. Brian Wang said

    >It’d be a lot easier to actually make progress in the space sector

    What is your definition of progress in the space sector ?
    Can you point to the specific work that you think is progress in the space sector ?

    >bothering to actually address those pesky little subject areas of economics, physics, medicine, and such

    How have the current decisions in the space sector (space shuttle, international space station etc…) been driven by economics ?

    How have the current energy infrastructure decisions been driven by economics, physics and medicine ?

    We buy more coal energy and fossil fuel. Air pollution kills 3 million per year. In the USA air polluion kills upwards of 60,000 people per year. Health coverage and business costs related to pollution far exceed any profit from the 50 billion coal industry in the United States.

    $400-1000/year in higher health insurance premiums
    higher prices on goods and products. Companies are passing on the higher health premiums that they pay for their workers, plus the lost productivity for workers that are out sick because of pollution.
    Higher costs for acid resistant paint for cars, houses
    Extra costs for public buildings that need more repair to the outside because of pollution damage
    Toxic waste, superfund cleanups
    Less fish, higher prices for fish
    Less resale value on cars in places with acid rain (more rust and corrosion). New Jersey, Detroit etc…
    Any flight delays in or out of Los Angeles and other places because of visibility.

    See the tables in this link for business and health costs.

    http://www.flcv.com/cap.html

    Collectively we have already passed up on workable technology to get into space cheaply. Project Orion. Instead we have chosen to stick with murderous coal and other fossil fuels.

  25. John Lee said

    shubber Says:

    See, now THAT I would support – spending money on long term R&D. But first you have to be honest about claims and admit that it IS long term R&D, as opposed to saying, um, something like: “His group concluded that there was no reason the Elevator couldn’t be built (with present day technologies).”

    Great, we finally agree on something. So, what you are saying is, that you would be willing to support a recommendation to the Defense Department that they should spend a modest amount(say 10-20 million a year) to see if we can’t replace those “Big Dumb Expendable Boosters (TM)” with something safer and cheaper in the
    next 5-10 years?

    Finally, I’m offended by the assertion that I, or other skeptics or non Kool-Aid drinkers are dismissing “new ideas without careful consideration.” If anything, we have to (repeatedly) spend time refuting the same boosterish nonsense from the starry eyed crowds that go on about L-5 colonies, asteroid mining, lunar bases, and yes, space elevators without bothering to actually address those pesky little subject areas of economics, physics, medicine, and such. It’d be a lot easier to actually make progress in the space sector if those people would just go back to watching the Star Trek marathon on cable and leave the work to the adults.

    What I meant my careful consideration was that: Someone in a decision making position should sit down and have an extended question and answer with Dr. Edwards to get the latest information and research and not depend on second hand info. I’m
    sure he can answer enough concerns to bring the Space Elevator
    concept out of the SciFi Books and into the real world of Adults.

  26. spacepolicy said

    There are a many many concepts that are allowed by the laws of physcis for much cheaper transportation to Earth orbit — beyond traditional rockets.

    One is the Space Elevator, and numerous other tether-based concepts.
    There are magnetic launch concepts.
    There are microwave-beamed power concepts
    There are microwave beamed augmented rocket concepts
    There are laser launch concepts.
    There are air-breathing scramjet, and air augmented rocket, concepts.
    There are concepts that use nuclear power within Earth’s atmosphere (Orion, NERVA, and many more).

    I know I am missing some.

    The problem is that none of these make sense from traditional economic point of view, meaning that private industry will not finance the new technoloy, which means they need federal funding. This creates second order political problems, which most of the very bright proponents (who tend to be scientists and engineers) don’t understand because their careers and education have not been in the very soft science of politics. These second order problems include:

    A) Proponents think that because “once upon a time” there was a Manhattan project, and there was an Apollo project, that all they need to do is talk about how great their solution is and the President and Congress will just open up their checkbooks. (In other words, they do not understand that the Manhattan project and the Apollo project were created to solve high-priority national security problems … and those problems are the result of a crisis. You can’t engineer those problems into existence, nor would you want to.)

    B) Proponents of each of these systems send contrary messages, and tend to trash all the other competing alternatives (creating confusion and cynicism among federal decision-makers), and

    C) Proponents tend to hand-wave how much it will cost to develop their preferred system, and the size and nature of the risks involved, creating cynicism among federal decision-makers,

    D) Most, if not all, of the above multi-billion-dollar risky investments also require many years in development, meaning that “sustainability” is a problem. One President could start the project, but it would probably not be completed under his/her Administration, which increases the risk of cancellation. (It also means that he/she also will not enjoy any political benefits, while in office, of a prospective success.)

    E) Meanwhile, the existing demand for launch is too small to justify the very large (and very risky) investments, and federal decision-makers are asked to take it on faith that huge new applications of the systems will spontaneously arise.

    It is my opinion that we need to “crawl, walk, jog, run” our way to a much larger commercial space industry as Coyote has previously suggested, just like we incrementally developed a much larger software, semiconductor and computer industries. Each one of these industries stair-stepped their way to the next level of growth and innovation. There were no “great leaps”.

    If we take this approach, at some future date, the industry as a whole might be able to justify a national decision to invest in one or more such high-risk/high-return projects. I believe that we will need to be launching multiple hundreds of times per year, and probably thousands of times per year, and that we will be doing so with reusable spaceplanes. Why reusable spaceplanes? Because there are immediate commercial & national security applications to spaceplanes that we can use to justify the marginal investment right now, and there is an emerging industry that is already investing significant private $$ that the U.S. Goverment can partner with. Politically, and economically, this makes much more sense.

    At that future date, when launch prices are in the low hundreds of dollars per pound, we will be in a much better position to market a system that could drop prices below, and possibly well below, the hundred dollars per pound mark. We will have many new emerging applications in Earth orbit, which already are proven and exist, and it will be much more evident to federal decision-makers that there will be great and immediate utility from even lower cost space transportation.

    – Charles

  27. Brian Wang said

    There is plenty of direct and indirect funding by government and private industry for lasers, magnetic rail levitation and the pieces of what is needed for the alternative launch systems.

    Lasers are a 6 billion worldwide market.

    Being entrepreneurial one can find ways to make revenue sooner with the right niche and to lower costs by having a good plan and leveraging other people’s work and existing technology.

    In the world
    There are over 1.4 million people with over 5 million each.
    5 people with over US$30 billion
    67 people with over US$10 billion
    167 people with over US$5 billion
    946 with over US$1 billion
    about 10,000 with over US$160 million
    about 100,000 with over US$30 million

    Many are already investing in technology and in particular space.

  28. shubber said

    <i>Many are already investing in technology and in particular space.</i>
    Flawed logic. That many are investing in technology is unquestionable (although define many – you’ll find definitions vary as widely as the answer to the question “how long is a piece of string”). However, that many in particular are investing in space is highly doubtful.
    Couple of data points for you: % of VC dollars allocated to space investing out of the total going into technology:
    % of VC dollars allocated to space investing out of the total going into technology investments in general: much less than 1%.

    The “biggest” space VC (which incubated in our offices in the early 90s) had trouble getting their first fund together, then raised a solid second fund, their third fund was almost exclusively NOT invested in “space” companies, and they since changed their name to remove the word “space” from it.

    Hardly a stellar testimony to the claim of significant investment in space technology by the wealthy, no?

  29. Brian Wang said

    the current fraction of 26 billion per year invested into US entrepreneurial ventures is not huge but it is not insignificant. Especially if you look at the related tech.

    $500 million to the smaller players with the COTS investment.

    the big guys in “NewSpace”

    Elon Musk with Spacex
    trying to get traditional rockets cheaper, reduce ground operation costs, etc…
    Elon Musk thinks with Merlin2 engines and his BFR (Big F Rocket) that he could get to
    $1000/lb or less to LEO (the Proton M is already at $1400/lb to LEO)
    Musk has said he thinks he can get his prices down to $500/lb.

    Bigelow Aerospace setup by Robert Bigelow has dumped big money into his space venture and has a 1/3 scale system in orbit.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigelow_Aerospace

    Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin (a DCx type vehicle)

    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/01/03/26062.aspx

    Paul Allen and Richard Branson
    Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites (Burt Rutan)
    Note Virgin Galactic and Pioneer Rocketplane could upgrade their vehicles for Mach 10 flight and combine that with a hypersonic skyhook (tether) and probably get to $200/lb.

    Pioneer rocketplane

    http://www.rocketplane.com/

    Representatives of Space Adventures, Ltd., a leading space experiences company, announced its plans to develop a commercial spaceport in Ras Al-Khaimah (the UAE), with plans to expand globally. Other potential spaceport locations include Asia, specifically Singapore, and North America. The total estimated cost of the global spaceport development project is at least US$265 million and will be funded by various parties, along with shared investments by Space Adventures and the government of Ras Al-Khaimah.

    Xcor angel investment

    http://www.xcor.com/press-releases/2007/07-06-07_Boston_Harbor_Angels_Invests_in_XCOR.html

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V1N-4K0FFPV-4&_user=10&_coverDate=09%2F30%2F2006&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=3ea182d5575d0d4c45945d69fd2e0c20

    Over the last 18 months (in 2004), we have seen a total of approximately US $12B dollars in private equity transactions in the satellite sector
    ============

    People and companies are investing in the enabling systems and technology for lasers, magnetic levitation etc.. that can be repurposed for space.

  30. the current fraction of 26 billion per year invested into US entrepreneurial ventures is not huge but it is not insignificant. Especially if you look at the related tech.

    Depends on what you consider actual “investment”:

    * $500 million to the smaller players with the COTS investment. – NASA (read: GOVERNMENT) money. This is hardly private sector investment.

    * the big guys in “NewSpace” – Musk, Bigelow, Rutan, Bezos. What people do with their own money is hardly proof of the “investment community” jumping in. More like they are following the old adage – how do you make a space millionaire? Start out with a dot.com billionaire. I noticed that you didn’t mention Andy Beal. Oh, that’s right. He threw in the towel after spending heaps of money on a rocket.

    * Spaceports: this one always makes me laugh- imagine investing in airports before airplanes existed.

    * Xcor angel investment – yes, they actually DID get an investment, and good for them. They also are producing some revenues, so they fit the criteria of certain investment groups. But note, this is still an angel investment group.

    * Over the last 18 months (in 2004), we have seen a total of approximately US $12B dollars in private equity transactions in the satellite sector. – Oh come on, please. Don’t try to count private equity firms buying existing profitable companies in a KNOWN sector of space business (comsats) as any form of “investment” in space development. That’s just disingenuous at best.

    People and companies are investing in the enabling systems and technology for lasers, magnetic levitation etc.. that can be repurposed for space.

    Lots of technologies being developed *may* have applicability for space some day. But the investors in those businesses (unless they were asleep in due diligence class) did NOT make their investment decisions based on tertiary “possible” markets, but rather the primary market for which the technology was being developed.

  31. Brian Wang said

    I had said *government* and private industry. If the money goes to what I think are the right targets then I don’t care that much how it got there.
    I consider a money from a billionaire investment. The only question is do they succeed. Just like Howard Hughes funded Hughes aerospace first for airplanes and then it became a big player with Satellites. It started with money from a billionaire. It was profitable and had good returns.
    Plus the whole point is not how it happens that we get the lower launch costs or new launcher technology so long as it happens.
    If funding for NASA’S laser astronomy program happens to make lasers 100 times more powerful and 50 times cheaper per watt…and that happens to make it easy for laser launch arrays for space then that is good for space.
    The satellite activity (It is indirect.) and spending is just one of the demand markets for launch and something which can be serviced with cheaper energy from SPS. It one of the things driving volume of launches. The more launches then the easier it is to get economies of scale.

  32. spacepolicy said

    Brian,

    But you absolutely should care “how it got there”. If you don’t understand it, then you can’t repeat it, and anything you propose is the equivalent of playing darts.

    Beyond this, I am not sure what your point now is. Since this is a Space Frontier Foundation sponsored website, let me assure you that almost everybody in the Space Frontier Foundation knows the facts you list. In fact, many of the founders and executives of the companies you list are Advocates of the Foundation. We are creating some of those facts.

    We agree that encouraging and promoting privately owned and operated space transportation, and other commercial space ventures, is the key to success. We agree that encouraging more investment is important. Our core strategic focus is “Advancing NewSpace”.

    That said, since some of us are “space business professionals” (which includes Shubber and I) we tend look at all proposals with the skeptical eye of a space business professional. This means that we can be critical of proposals that we don’t think merit an investment. In order to advance the space business art, we are willing to say “why” we don’t think something makes sense.

    So, with regards to your statements, let me respond to the general flavor. There are trillions of dollars sloshing around in private markets looking for good investments. But compared to other industries, space investments have many very high risks in the areas of A) Technology, B) Markets, C) Regulatory, D) Political, and E) Financing (e.g., Need much larger investments).

    If you have ideas on how to smartly reduce the risks in one, or or more, of these investment-risk areas, so that we can encourage some of those “trillions” to be investen in space, and SBSP, please share. That is really the challenge for SBSP. And if we give you the jaundiced opinions of curmudgeons, please don’t take it personal. If you come up one good idea, it will justify all the effort you put into it.

    – Charles

    Charles Miller
    CEO, Constellation Services International, Inc.

    http://www.constellationservices.com

    Advocate, Space Frontier Foundation
    Member, Board of Directors, Space Frontier Foundation

  33. TomsRants said

    Just FYI – I know Brad Edwards, and have talked with him at length about carbon nanotubes. For the record, Edwards calculated that for a nanotube ribbon to work, it would require a tensile strength of 100 gigapascals. anything less – even 95 – would snap the thing. It was 100+ or nothing. Present strength is about 3 or 4 GPa. We have a loooong way to go before the elevator can become a reality.

  34. I see my name here a few times and thought I should probably step in.

    One of the biggest problems I see on blogs is misinformation. Most unintentional and some intentional. That is why I am rarely on any of these. Coyote, if you would like to talk about the space elevator and the realistic possibilities I would be happy to discuss it with you.

    Carbon nanotubes are being made in bulk and can be made commercially and inexpensively in bulk – this is already being done in Japan, China and soon here in the U.S.

    Carbon nanotube threads have been made with a tensile strength of 50 GPa (10 times that of carbon fiber) and there is no set minimum for making a space elevator. Some of my colleagues argue that we can build the first one with material at 60GPa and they may very likely be correct. The system is more expensive at lower strengths but still viable. The 50GPa thread was also a first shot and far from the best that can be made.

    Commercial efforts to make the high-strength CNT material in commercial mass quantities are already underway.

    The rest of the technology and understanding of the system are at the point where we can build one and have it operational in about 12 years. This can all be back-up by hard engineering.

    The market of the elevator is much larger than needed to produce an extremely attractive business case. BP Solar stated at one point they would put up the money to build the first solar power sat if we built the elevator.

    We are not looking for money to build the elevator. We are attacking the problem in a business manner and developing valuable technology on investor dollars. We do have a long-term plan to realisticly build the elevator that requires no federal funding. In the coming year we expect our initial plans to be public knowledge though not the construction of the elevator.

    A sit and wait strategy on these systems I do not believe will give you what you want. The elevator can be built by more than just us or the U.S. and that is why we discuss little of what we are doing. By not going forward aggressively you leave the door open to other entities – foreign and domestic. If you think the SBSP is critical then it is best to go after it with real work and real effort in an objective way. If not, we or someone else will build the elevator and then the SBSP may or may not be built by a U.S. entity.

    And one favor, read my work first then comment.

    Coyote, again, feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this further.

    Brad Edwards

  35. Edward Wright said

    Elon Musk has stated several times that the point is to get costs below $1000/kg. A 100,000-kg-to-LEO vehicle priced at $500/kg would be $50M per launch.

    Remember that Elon got involved in commercial space because he was a director of the Mars Society and friend of Bob Zubrin. He makes no secret of the fact that his ultimate goal is to go to Mars. For him, commercial space is simply a means to that end, and his architecture and cost targets are driven by that end. They don’t necessarily represent an optimum for SSP or anything else.

    Also, I suspect that cost target is after development of BFR, which Elon himself says would have to be paid for by the government.

  36. Brian Wang said

    I thought the focus of the site was to determine the political, scientific, technical, logistical, and commercial feasibility of space-based solar power collection and distribution in the 21st Century as a contributing source of clean energy to national power grids and smaller niche applications.

    If we are going to pre-screen any brainstorming on SSP to what makes “for private business non-billionaire”, then other ground based energy plays make more economic sense. Safe plays with known returns. Nuclear fission plants are coming back. wind farms. Alberta real estate seems like a sure bet. Hundreds of billions going to develop the oilsands for a long term (multi-decade) real estate boom. Ground based solar concentrators arrays with government assistance. For exotic high risk and high potential plays, triAlpha Energy’s colliding beam fusion has some big backers. (Venrock, Goldman Sachs etc…)

    There are a few separate projects to be performed to reduce risk for space based power.

    The initial project which I proposed in comment 11.
    Use the cheapest existing rocket system that you can and launch an appropriate sized version of a magnetically inflated thin film solar concentrator. Get the highest efficiency space rated solar cells. First perform whatever simulations and ground testing of the magnetic inflation system that you can perform. If you do not like magnetic inflation then go with standard inflation. Maybe create an intellectual property position and partner with people with more money.

    Ideally get some kind of ion engine tug system to go from LEO to higher orbit for more efficiency but that is a separate project to get different overall efficiency.

    Try to prove out beaming power to other satellites and look at other niche markets. SSP is a long way from being able to compete with ground power. Try and get a small scale project up to the ISS since it is there and proof of concept beam power from the existing ISS power supply elsewhere in orbit.

    Can also try to perform laser thrust tests in space, before scaling up laser array launch systems (initially research project). First possible commercial application is for station keeping in space using lasers.

    ===
    In terms of the separate space frontier goals:
    I wish you good luck with humans in space, but I do not see settlement scaling up in any meaningful way (which is what I care about) without the energy infrastructure first. If you can get the rich to toss $20 million at a time for an orbital or lunar joy ride and are able to piggy back some infrastructure then more power to you. It could be a profitable business, just not one that I think will lead to colonization.

    ===
    I see an upcoming threat to part of the commercial space satellites markets in the form of long duration high altitude blimps and robot planes. Electronics that can be printed onto the skin of the blimps.

    ====
    For the lasers and magnets launches, get the government and others to pay for the work and do some low cost testing and simulations and wait for when the tech is ripe. Let others in academia get the grants and do the research and wait. Although given your background the laser and magnet launching will probably not be a play suited to you (charles or Shubber).

  37. MervynKellum said

    Coyote,

    I presented a paper at the 3rd Annual Space Elevator Conference that answers some of your questions. Feel free to email me for a copy.

    Glad to see someone else is interested as well,

    Mervyn Kellum

  38. Christine said

    The biggest killer for space based solar power is ground based solar power.

    Regardless of panel cost, to make an SBSP plant economic you need to launch the panels, structure, transmission, and power conversion gear into geosynchronous orbit for no more than twice their production cost, else it is cheaper to simply deploy them on the ground.

  39. Neil Cox said

    Hi Chrisine: What you say is true, if you have an ecconomical way to get the electricity from the desert to the customers, typically hundreds of miles away, and an economical way to clean the solar mirors and panels after each dust storm, and a way to store electricity from midday to early evening peak demand period. Otherwise you can spend 5 to 10 times as much on launch, panels, structure, transmision line, and power conversion gear as it costs for photovoltaic on the ground. Ie SBSP can supply to Boston, Mass at no higher cost than to Reno, Nevada, but roof top photovoltaic panes on Boston roofs only average about 1/10 as much power as panels at GEO altitude, because the sun does not often shine in Boston and vicinity.
    Yes, we should build solar in the desert to supply cities in the desert and near by. We need to start building SBSP and/or nuclear soon, or we will be dangerously dependent on Arab oil in 2020, even if we have thousands of square miles of desert solar by 2020. I understand Ted Kennedy objected to putting wind power in sight of his home near Boston in one of the few locations good for wind power in NE USA. Other alternatives likely cannot supply 1% of our energy needs by 2020, even with very costly crash programs. Neil

  40. Neil Cox said

    Silicon dioxide is the most common compound in dirt and sand. Sometimes as quartz the purity is 99% or better. For photovoltaic cells, the oxygen must be removed and the silicon impurities reduced to a few parts per billion. It is this pure silicon that is very pure, and in large crystals, which is in short supply. Like the other things we need for SBSP, guarantees of customers are needed to induce investors to build large silicon production facilities. The silicon crystals are easy to store so we could reasonably stockpile a years supply, when production catches up with demand. Neil
    CNT research might also advance rapidly if DOD agreed to buy ten tons at a billion dollars per ton that met tight specs.

  41. Neil Cox said

    My guess is DoD should start with free flying balloon platforms at about 20 miles altitude. These could produce a spot size perhaps 40 feet by 200 feet at 100 miles slant range. That is about 5000 square feet. If the beam delivers one million watts that’s 200 watts per square foot, which is about double the watts of sunlight on an unusually clear day = not very dangerous, but we would want any humans close by to wear protective clothing. The system could be an effective (but brief) demonstration in many counties of the world before the balloon landed inside the Arctic Circle.
    If laser diodes are available by launch time these can fly in the balloon instead of micro waves and produce a much smaller spot size. The laser diodes can deliver energy to any large existing solar array, instead of requiring the construction of rectennas. If the balloon system worked better than expected we could build billions (or millions of bigger balloons) of them to supply perhaps 1% percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s energy needs. Even if results are only fair we have useful data (and technology) to build LEO = low Earth orbit systems, which should be the next step before GEO orbit. From 23 miles to 23,000 miles away we would expect the minimum beam width to increase from perhaps 6 feet to 6000 feet which requires a one square mile receiving site, more with a guard band. Neil

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: