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
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
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
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
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
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.