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Solar Space Power

Starfire Tor

(Published in Quest Magazine)

In 1929, a Russian scholar and scientist by the name of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had a life long dream involving the future of mankind. He wrote about something that he called "orbital mansions and greenhouses", which were earth orbiting habitats completely powered by the energy of the Sun. J.D. Bernal, another visionary, also realized the advantages of continuous sunlight. He, and other pioneering thinkers, foresaw much of earth's population moving into enormous, orbiting, self sufficient spheres and wheels whose energy derived from the power of the sun. The late Gerard K. O'Neill is considered to have been one of the major driving forces behind current efforts to harness the sun's power. He envisioned that this perpetual solar generated force would be the foundation for building energy efficient space settlements and mining operations in earth orbit, on the moon, on other planets, and even on asteroids.

Our planet, among other things, is in 'energy crisis'. To fuel our world we have collectively used, abused, and in some cases, used up the world's resources. Add that to our ever burgeoning population with its poisonous industrial pollution, and the immediate need for a renewable and non polluting energy source becomes obviously critical to our survival. During the political oil crunch of the 1970s, the industries of science and technology began to seriously explore ways in which we could alleviate our energy burdens by harnessing the one power source that everyone agreed was the ultimate challenge and the ultimate victory - our sun.

Most of us have an appreciation of the sun at the most basic of levels. As long as humans have walked this earth, the sun has been revered as the giver of life. It was only several hundred years ago that mankind's thinking took a backwards turn and believed that the earth was the center of the Universe. Although there may be some hold outs for that belief, most people have an inherent understanding that the sun is the undisputed center of this planet's orbital existence. Except for moon tides, the earth's own heated core, and radioactive material, the sun is responsible for nearly all of the delivered energy on this planet. The sun is, in fact, a star that has been burning brightly for billions of years and will continue to do so for billions of more years. It's also a fusion reactor which delivers enough energy to our planet, in one day, to fuel our world's needs for an entire year. It's no wonder that solar power is looked on as our energy savior.

Solar powered satellites may be the key link in achieving a turn around in our search for cleaner, cheaper, and renewable fuel sources. Most electricity is currently produced by burning coal, oil, fossil fuel, or natural gas which produces steam that causes a turbine generator to produce electricity. This is not an efficient way to either generate or deliver electricity. A high percentage of the original generated power is lost by the time it reaches residential, commercial, and industrial consumers. Hydropower and wind power, natural elements that are dependant on the sun, provide a small percentage of consumed energy. It's no wonder that we are currently experiencing an aggressive global investment in the research, construction, and future deployment of space solar power systems (SSP) and the worlds they will help to create.

The Space Studies Institute reports that the collection of solar power in space, for transmission to the Earth, is the principal economic driver that will open the high frontier of space to exploration and habitation. To date, spacecraft have always been dependant on volatile and heavy chemical propellants to fly. But with solar satellites and solar ground stations, future spacecraft may have their energy needs met by the placement of external orbiting solar space cells. The ultimate would be to have one spacecraft be able to beam a transfer of energy to another spacecraft, even in deep space. This could conceivably be achieved by attaching an array of solar space cells to the outside of a spacecraft.

Solar Electric or Photovoltaic Systems can convert some of the energy in sunlight directly into electricity. Photovoltaic (PV) cells are mostly made up of silicon, which is the same semi conductor material used in computers. When the silicon is combined with other material, and that combination comes into contact with sunlight, electrons become excited and move through the silicon producing a form of electricity. Several connected photovoltaic cells are called modules; connected groups of modules form panels; groups of panels form arrays; a number of arrays form a field; and array fields in space are called solar space cell array fields.

Where technology goes, man is sure to follow. It used to be the other way around. But with mankind's advanced abilities to send communications and energy through space, the technology is usually the first to "boldly go where no beam of energy has gone before". As a people, we've already taken our first few bold forays into the future of life in space. And as far seeing as Tsiolkovsky and Bernal were, are we surprised that our future is getting to look more and more like the Science Fiction world of "Star Trek"?

Designing and building SSP systems is a challenge in itself, even if all of the user friendly logistics have been worked out. There are four main aspects to successfully deploying a solar satellite with it's solar energy collecting space cells: the ground work segment; the space work segment; building the infrastructure; and transportation needs. And then there are decisions to be made as to what type of energy wave is best for what need, including microwaves, millimeter waves, optical waves, and laser waves. The innovative mind of dedicated scientists and inventors have come up with a number of workable SSP concepts. At the top of the list are 'The Sun Tower' and 'The Solar Disk'.

The Sun Tower is designed to be a tethered solar satellite system that involves the use of highly modularized power generation and transmission, which uses mass produced magnetron segments. It is stabilized by utilizing a gradient gravity technique. The Solar Disk differs in that it gains its stabilization from its rotation, and by using differentially spinning elements. These stabilization concepts are still in the problem solving stage, mostly due to the fact that the only reliable tests to assure their worthiness must be performed in the weightless environment of space. It has also been deemed that to successfully build a solar satellite in space, the risk to humans and the human risk to the SSP, must to be reduced. This means that the use of automated systems and robotics has to be employed. Therefore, the science of solar power and the science of robotics must advance as part of a working partnership.

Gerard K. O'Neill saw beyond the innovative thinking needed to build an SSP industry. While others where working out the logistics of how to build the SSPs that would capture and transmit the sun's energy, he was already designing concepts that would utilize solar power for off-world mining and their attendant human colonies. He never faltered in his belief that solar power could and would unlock the doors to untold space missions and a newfound hope for mankind.


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