China Announces New Space-based Solar Power Initiative
By John D. Turner
18 Feb 2019

Have you ever heard of “Space-based solar power”? You should have. It has been around for quite a while, and has the potential to solve our major electrical needs for the future.

In 1977 a book was published entitled “The High Frontier.” The book was written by Gerard K. O’Neill, who at the time was a professor at Princeton University. The book had to do with building colonies in space – not on the Moon or Mars, but in space itself, specifically at the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. Not tiny space stations like the ISS currently in low Earth orbit (LEO), these were designed to be monster sized cylindrical habitats, holding anywhere between 10,000 and 10,000,000 people. In the TV series Babylon 5, the Babylon 5 space habitat was an O’Neill cylinder.

Dr. O’Neill had been working on this idea for several years when he came out with the book. The project was to be built in stages; the plan called for a lunar mining base, a mass-driver on the moon to send the lunar material to a construction shack in orbit where the materials would be smelted and fabricated for building the first 10,000 person colony and the first powersat, capable of beaming one gigawatt of power back to a rectenna (receiving antenna) on Earth.

It was a lofty goal; one that Dr. O’Neill claimed could be done with existing 1975 technology at a cost similar to the peak annual cost of send the NASA astronauts to the moon. It would take 30 years from inception to completion, but after that, a new colony or powersat could be cranked out each year. Although the 30 year cost would have to be managed up front, he also claimed that sales of electricity from the powersat would pay back the entire cost. So confident was he that this could be and should be done, he presented the plan in testimony before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Aerospace Technology and National Needs on 19 January 1976.

Was it possible? Others thought so. The same year that O’Neill’s book came out, another, “Colonies in Space,” was published by T.A. Heppenheimer, a PhD in aerospace engineering. He presented similar arguments and analysis from various other engineers and scientists, who concluded that not only could the project be done with existing technology, but that it could actually be done cheaper than Dr. O’Neill had calculated. Dr. Heppenheimer’s schedule would have had the first powersat for commercial use coming on line in 1989, the same year that work would begin on the first colony, which would be completed in 10 years, with the second colony completed by 2011. He projected that by 1999, all new and replacement power plants in the United States would be built as rectennas for solar power, beamed back to earth by space based power satellites.

The cost for the entire project was projected at $106 billion in 1975 dollars, with the net cost of the powersats being $26 billion. However the powersats were projected to produce as much as $80 billion worth of electricity per year by 2008, and the entire cost of the project would be paid back by 2019 – this year.

Could it have happened? We’ll never know. Things always cost more than you originally thought, and I am sure that as a government project, there would have been massive overruns. Could the United States government have continued such a program over that period of time, through that many changes of administrations? Would we have had the national willpower?

It could certainly be done today; the technology has only improved. One could envision a consortium of tech billionaires getting together to do so. It would take long-term vision and execution, but the pay off at the end would be huge. And it would solve both our energy problems and our need for living space at the same time, with no need to worry about how 1/6 gee on the moon or 1/3 gee on Mars might affect future generations of humans living there. You can spin the colonies to provide a comfortable 1 gee effective gravity.

It also eliminates the main problem with solar energy here on Earth – it only generates power when the sun is shining, it varies based on overcast conditions, and storing it for use at night is currently a serious problem. As it stands now, solar, while a good supplement to our current power generation, is incapable of providing reliable baseline power to the grid, no matter how much people might wish it to be otherwise. Space based solar on the other hand, is available 24x7, and can be beamed constantly to earth by powersats in geostationary orbit. Space based solar can provide our energy needs like ground based solar cannot. As Dr. O’Neill was famous for saying, “it’s raining soup out there; all we need to do is get a spoon.”

Which brings me to today, 18 February 2019; China, fresh from its successful landing of a probe on the far side of the moon, announces that it plans to build a solar power satellite capable of beaming power back to earth. They have begun setting up the ground components in Chongqing, and plan a test system sometime between 2021 and 2025, with a full-scale one megawatt facility on line by 2030. China has discovered the soup and is on their way with the spoon.

As I have remarked to my wife and others on many occasions, somebody will do this eventually. I wish it were us, but if we don’t, someone will. And it will probably be China. Well, guess what? Looks like it will be China.

It’s funny. Right now we are worried about China taking the lead in 5G technology and ending up with a monopoly on that worldwide; looks like we may also have to worry about getting our power from them in the future as well. Once they have secured their place at the L4 and L5 points, I doubt seriously they will be allowing anyone else to compete. Why should they?

I would have expected the green folks to be all over this. They seem to like solar power a lot. But solar in space? That is something else entirely. There will be worry about the microwave beams cooking birds flying through their path (even though they don’t worry about the birds chopped up every day trying to fly through giant windmills). There will be worry about using it as a weapon. And green socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who want to ground all airplanes, certainly won’t be cool with rockets flying to space all the time.

Incidentally, you don’t have to worry about the power beam. While it is a microwave beam, it is not pulsed like a microwave, so there are no heating effects. And the energy density is less than that of sunlight, so it won’t burn you either.

Will China pick up the rest of O’Neills’ plan and built the space habitats? They haven’t announced such yet. However, the do have plans to build their own small space station around 2022, which is about the same time as their planned solar power satellite test. Likely they will use that to test the system in low earth orbit. Of course, a full-scale system needs to be in geosynchronous orbit to be effective, which is where the planned one megawatt satellite will be located. That can be done using existing technology as well without building any large scale space habitats or bases on the moon for mining.

However on their mission to the lunar far side, China also tested to see if lunar soil could support life. Pictures sent back showed germination of cotton seeds, and the mission also carried canola seeds, potato, yeast and fruit flies. Obviously, the Chinese have plans of some sort.

Interestingly, the Chinese are doing this not as a completely government funded enterprise, but as a public-private venture with small domestic start-up companies receiving funding from China-based venture capitalists, albeit with the usual governmental controls. This is very similar to what is happening here in the US with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. So the profit motive, so successful with companies like Huawei, which is launching the 5G revolution all over the world, is in full effect.

It should be noted that Huawei is now the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, and is 83rd in the Global Fortune 500. I would expect that with the sort of “help” available to them from the Chinese government, that these startup companies will rapidly be able to catch up with Musk and Bezos. Before too long, we will probably be going to China for satellite launch and satellite construction services as well.

China is also launching its own GPS system to compete with ours, and developing a “satellite inspection and repair” capability to clean up orbiting junk that has been accumulating for decades. Taken together, this shows that unlike the American government, which has allowed its space capabilities to languish for decades, China is serious about space and its uses. Will that spur the US to compete? Or will we just settle back in our Lazy Boy in front of our 100” OLED, pop a beer, and cheer on the Chinese while wearing our “been there done that” t-shirt?

I hope that is not the case. Space is a technology driver. And historically, he who holds the high ground wins the engagement. Space is the high ground. Technology is the future. I prefer to be in an America that is forging ahead, not an America that is a washed-up has-been 3rd rate backwater. While I am excited that mankind is finally getting into space as we need to, I would have to see us do it rather than a Communist dictatorship do so for a vast number of reasons.

The National Space Society here in the US has been pushing space solar power for decades. Unfortunately, most Americans have never heard of the NSS or space based solar power, and the Congress and successive presidential administrations have also been singularly unimpressed. In fact, when Dr. O’Neill first proposed it at the Senate subcommittee meeting I mentioned at the beginning in 1976, Senator William Proxmire, famous for his “golden fleece” awards, responded that “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone…I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy.”

So while our previous administration had seemingly bottomless pockets for promoting ground-based solar and giant windfarms, it’s love for NASA was limited to “reinspiring children to want to get into science and math, expanding our international relationships, and to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.” At least that is what NASA’s administrator Charles Bolton said back in August of 2010. Oh yes, and to “concentrate on Earth-science projects” – mainly researching and monitoring climate change. We canceled the proposed moon and Mars missions and suspended work on the new heavy lift booster and spacecraft intended for that effort.

But when it comes to space solar power, the Obama administration was no different than any other, including the Trump administration, which also has no desire to do anything about making the technology that we originally proposed a reality. Perhaps China’s announcement will light a fire under someone somewhere and at least get us into in competition. Or then again, the announcement may well be greeted with the same sort of disdain displayed by Senator Proxmire back in 1976.

It’s not that space solar isn’t being discussed as a look at the NSS webpage on Space Solar Power shows here, but rather it seems that no one outside the community is listening. Scholarly publications and symposiums are nice, but someone needs to fork over the money to make the dreams a reality.

Apparently someone in China has been listening.