FREEDOM AND SAFETY
The X-37B, the secretive uncrewed reusable space plane, has lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft is loaded with a variety of experiments, some from NASA, some from the United States Space Force. One experiment, testing the microwave transmission of solar energy captured from space, has the potential to change the world.
The idea of collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it to Earth was first described by Peter Glasser in 1968. Glasser subsequently acquired a patent in 1973. During the Carter administration, when an energy crisis rocked the world during the Iranian Revolution, NASA and the Energy Department conducted feasibility studies of the concept.
Around the time that Glasser received his patent, a Princeton physics professor named Gerard K. O’Neill began to develop ideas for free-flying space colonies in an article in Physics Today, the idea being that we don’t need to live on another world, such as the Moon or Mars. We can build our own worlds, using materials mined from the moon and asteroids. The concept was popularized in the science fiction TV series “Babylon 5.”
A year later, O’Neill proposed that these space colonies be paid for by having the colonies build massive space-based solar collectors. These solar power satellites, also built with lunar and asteroid materials, would provide a way to wean the Earth from fossil fuels. It had resonance in the 1970s with its various oil shocks due to Middle East turmoil. Unlike the Apollo program, building space colonies and solar power satellites would have a direct economic benefit. O’Neill popularized his concept in a book entitled “High Frontier.”
Space-based solar power, except for a handful of experiments, remained a concept throughout the rest of the 20th century and for the first two decades of the 21st. The initial cost of setting up a solar power satellite system that would provide much of the energy needs of the Earth would be astronomical, no pun intended. Also, the oil shocks of the 1970s faded away. Indeed, the fracking boom uncovered enough sources of fossil fuels to last for the foreseeable future.
Two developments may revive the idea of a solar power satellite system. The first is increasing fears of climate change caused by greenhouse gasses emitted by the use of oil, coal and gas. The second is the rise of Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com and Blue Origin, a space launch company. Bezos is on track, according to one study, to becoming the first trillionaire on the planet.
More importantly, Bezos was a student at Princeton when O’Neill first proposed his plan for space colonies paid for by space-based solar power. He has taken that concept to heart and now means to implement it, perhaps on his own. Many people hate the idea that Bezos has so much money and hate Bezos personally. But his great wealth and drive may be what are needed to change the world.
The goals of the X-37B solar power experiment are much more modest than upending the planet’s energy economy. The military is interested in beamed solar power for two applications.
Drones that operate on beamed solar power could, in theory at least, fly indefinitely. The technology could also provide power to other spacecraft, satellites, or even rovers on the moon, say in the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles, where water ice resides.
Beamed solar power could provide electricity to remote research or military outposts. A fire base in the hills of Afghanistan must be sustained by regular shipments of diesel fuel brought in at great expense and danger from enemy interdiction. Solar energy beamed in from space could be a sensible alternative if the technology can be developed.
Could the Glasser/O’Neill dream of giant solar power satellites beaming power to Earth ever be realized as a result of the X-37B experiment? Peter Garretson, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and current Senior Fellow for Defense Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, thinks so. In such an event, the world would change in ways that cannot be easily imagined.
On the other hand, the Space Force, whose mandate in part is to defend America’s communications and GPS satellites from enemy attack, will have its hands full preserving giant solar arrays from destruction in case of armed conflict. But every technological advance comes with problems that must be dealt with.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.
BY MARK WHITTINGTON