The NSSO states that it would be possible to capture energy equivalent to all remaining oil resources in a year of solar power.  (Source: NSSO/Pentagon)

The current design of the Space Solar Panel (SSP).  (Source: NSSO/Pentagon)

Artist's redition of an SSP power plant in action, beaming energy to Earth.  (Source: ©Mafic Studios, Inc.)
The Pentagon has some advanced solutions for the world energy crisis.

The Pentagon has never shied from developing expensive and controversial plans for new military technologies.  Over the past few decades it has engaged in many research programs, including the controversial strategic defense initiative/missile shield, which is finally seeing some measure of success according to a recent article by DailyTech's Michael Asher.

Now the Pentagon has issued a new report that calls for a technology effort, which may leave some scratching their heads, while raising many a cheer from some space flight advocates.

The Pentagon seeks to eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil, including imports that come from the conflict laden Middle East -- something which it sees as a critical "strategic energy vulnerability."  In order to eliminate this dependence, it proposes a radical alternative energy strategy.

The Pentagon's National Security Space Office (NSSO) proposed collecting solar rays in space and beaming it back to Earth.  It stated in the report that it feels that this is a "near-term" solution, which could be realized very quickly.

Such a move it says in the report, would allow U.S. forces deployed around the world to eliminate the long logistic chain needed to deliver fuel to vehicles and other generators, by beaming power directly where needed.  The NSSO labels the technology Space Solar Power (SSP) and has issued a press release (PDF) on a blog it is publishing with the Space Frontier Foundation.

The plan also states that by developing SSP, the U.S. Armed Forces can reduce the risk for large scale commercial development of the technology.  What this means, if the plans succeeds, is that industries may eventually see the technology at an affordable price, while the military will pay a premium to become the early adopter.

"The business case still doesn't close, but it's closer than ever," Marine Corps Lt. Col. Paul E. Damphousse of the NSSO states in the report.

Charles Miller, CEO of Constellation Services International, a space technology start-up, and director of the Space Frontier Foundation, hopes that the government chooses to follow the report and adopt the technology.  By installing a power plant in geostationary orbit, the government can effectively "buy down" the risk for industry start-ups such as his company, he says.

Such a move could allow the U.S. and its allies to commercially eliminate oil dependence, and meet the energy needs of the developing world, ushering in an era of clean energy.

John Mankins, president of the Space Power Association and technical expert in the field of SSP, had this to say on the proposal, "This is not a 50-year solution--the kinds of things that are possible today say a truly transformational demonstration at a large scale is achievable within this decade."

Mankins points to how solar cell efficiency has increased from once having a goal of 20-25 percent efficiency, to having successfully achieved efficiency rates of over 40 percent.   Mankins suggests using the International Space Station (ISS) as a possible platform to build the power plant around.  He says that Japan's Kibo module, set to launch in the first half of next year, would be the perfect place to test exotic materials for the solar cells, and eventually to begin mass construction of a solar array.

The panel of experts which helped publish the report suggests that the Pentagon front the costs of the technology to industry.  It also suggests aggressive tax breaks and other policies to encourage SSP development and adoption.

Lt. Damphousse also indicated that SSP development could give a boost to other space industries.  He stated in the report that development of a reusable launch vehicle was critical to making SSP viable.

While this report certainly indicates an interesting proposal from the Pentagon, it is questionable how much funding or serious attention it will receive.  Then again, from some of the other expensive and outlandish technologies such as laser pulse and strobe light weapons, which the Pentagon has been developing, nothing should be ruled impossible.  SSP may soon provide a new alternative energy option.

"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke

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