NASA To Reexamine Space-Based Solar Power

NASA is starting a study to reexamine the viability of space-based solar power, a long-touted solution to providing power from space that may be getting new interest thanks to technological advances and pushes for clean energy.

In a presentation at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference on May 27, Nikolai Joseph of NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy said the agency was beginning a short-term study evaluating the prospects of space-based solar power, or SBSP, the first by the agency in about two decades.

“As the technology has evolved, the feasibility of the system has changed over time,” he said. “This study is going to assess the degree to which NASA should support space-based solar power.”

The study will not attempt to come up with a new architecture for SBSP, but instead, reexamine past concepts for collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it to the ground for conversion to electricity. Those updated systems will be compared to terrestrial power systems and assess policy and implementation challenges they face.

It will also look at the costs of such systems, which traditionally have been a major stumbling block in previous studies dating back to the 1970s. “It’s going to be a lot of money, but money is not the only driver here,” he said. “If the number is huge and staggering, that might be OK.”

Advanced in several technical areas, Joseph said, gives the agency reason to at least reexamine the feasibility of SBSP. “The elephant in the room is launch costs, and launch has become significantly more accessible. That completely changes the way we look at this,” he said. Other areas that have seen advances include thermal systems, electronics, materials, and solar panels.

NASA has had discussions with the U.S. Space Force and other “technical agencies” on the study, he said. There are no plans currently to seek public input through a formal request for information or other processes, but he did not rule out doing so later on. The goal is to finish the study and present it at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris in September.

There has been a revival of interest in SBSP in recent years, including a workshop last December by the European Space Agency that Joseph said NASA attended and which led the agency to consider its own study. The British government included SBSP as a technology it was exploring alongside nuclear, wind, and other energy systems last year.

Much of that interest is driven by the desire for energy sources that can achieve goals of “net-zero” carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. “I think it’s one of the more promising things that we can do from a space perspective to help save the planet. We’ve got to get to 2050 net-zero,” said Karen Jones of The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy during a later panel on SBSP at the conference.

“It just doesn’t make any sense for the United States to not be looking at this,” said Peter Garretson, a former U.S. Air Force officer who led a study on SBSP by the now-defunct National Security Space Office in 2007. He cited both climate change as well as international competition, including reported Chinese interest in SBSP.

“Even if you were to assume that space solar power would not end up being economical, the fact that we are losing the narrative by not trying for something on a global agenda just makes us look silly,” he argued.

John Mankins, a longtime advocate for SBSP who led earlier NASA studies on the topic, said “super cheap” space access promised by vehicles like SpaceX’s Starship changed the economics of such a system. “Transportation is no longer part of the cost equation,” he said. “That makes space solar power potentially affordable, depending on how you do it.”

In his speech, Joseph said the study, besides looking at costs and policy issues, will also examine public perception of space-based solar power. “Public perception is something we don’t talk much about,” he said, noting that when he explains how such systems would beam power back to Earth, people ask what that would mean for birds flying through those beams. “I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, but I don’t fully know and I need to understand that.”

He said the study could provide benefits even if it concludes SBSP isn’t feasible. “It’s a wonderful strawman for understanding how we attack big problems like this,” he said. “It’s also a great way to look at how you build policy around big projects.”

“I feel there’s something of an obligation within NASA to look at this,” he added, “because it’s been around for so long and this idea hasn’t been destroyed yet. It’s persisted.”

Article by: Jeff Foust

Via: https://spacenews.com/nasa-to-reexamine-space-based-solar-power/


NASA’s Webb Telescope Launches to See First Galaxies, Distant Worlds

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launched at 7:20 a.m. EST Saturday on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

A joint effort with ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency, the Webb observatory is NASA’s revolutionary flagship mission to seek the light from the first galaxies in the early universe and to explore our own solar system, as well as planets orbiting other stars, called exoplanets.

“The James Webb Space Telescope represents the ambition that NASA and our partners maintain to propel us forward into the future,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe. I can’t wait to see what it uncovers!”

Ground teams began receiving telemetry data from Webb about five minutes after launch. The Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket performed as expected, separating from the observatory 27 minutes into the flight. The observatory was released at an altitude of approximately 75 miles (120 kilometers). Approximately 30 minutes after launch, Webb unfolded its solar array, and mission managers confirmed that the solar array was providing power to the observatory. After solar array deployment, mission operators will establish a communications link with the observatory via the Malindi ground station in Kenya, and ground control at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore will send the first commands to the spacecraft.

Engineers and ground controllers will conduct the first of three mid-course correction burns about 12 hours and 30 minutes after launch, firing Webb’s thrusters to maneuver the spacecraft on an optimal trajectory toward its destination in orbit about 1 million miles from Earth.

“I want to congratulate the team on this incredible achievement – Webb’s launch marks a significant moment not only for NASA but for thousands of people worldwide who dedicated their time and talent to this mission over the years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Webb’s scientific promise is now closer than it ever has been. We are poised on the edge of a truly exciting time of discovery, of things we’ve never before seen or imagined.”

The world’s largest and most complex space science observatory will now begin six months of commissioning in space. At the end of commissioning, Webb will deliver its first images. Webb carries four state-of-the-art science instruments with highly sensitive infrared detectors of unprecedented resolution. Webb will study infrared light from celestial objects with much greater clarity than ever before. The premier mission is the scientific successor to NASA’s iconic Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, built to complement and further the scientific discoveries of these and other missions.

“The launch of the Webb Space Telescope is a pivotal moment – this is just the beginning for the Webb mission,” said Gregory L. Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA Headquarters. “Now we will watch Webb’s highly anticipated and critical 29 days on the edge. When the spacecraft unfurls in space, Webb will undergo the most difficult and complex deployment sequence ever attempted in space. Once commissioning is complete, we will see awe-inspiring images that will capture our imagination.”

The telescope’s revolutionary technology will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, to everything in between. Webb will reveal new and unexpected discoveries and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

NASA Headquarters oversees the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages Webb for the agency and oversees work on the mission performed by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and other mission partners. In addition to Goddard, several NASA centers contributed to the project, including the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and others.

For more information about the Webb mission, visit: