Monday, March 31, 2014

Space Utility Company

Electricity is absolutely necessary for any and all space stations and space vehicles. Electricity warms or cools the interior, it creates drinkable water, and it even propels some craft. Modern spacecraft have to carry some means of power generation with them if they are meant to remain in space for any extended period of time. This is usually a set of solar panels and a bank of batteries. But these power generation systems add extra weight to the launch of these systems as well as the extra expense to design and integrate the system for each spacecraft. But this can all be avoided. Smaller versions of the Orbital Solar Power Station could be created as a means to power spacecraft. This would eliminate the need for each craft to have its own power generation system.

A space power station would essentially be a small solar plant. A group of solar panels or a mirror and turbine. But it would be outfitted with a wireless power transmitter, perhaps microwave or laser based. With this station in place, other spacecraft could simply be fitted with a receiver and then be placed near the power station in order to be given the power they need. This would reduce the amount of weight that the ship or station needs to have hauled into orbit and would reduce the design effort of making the ship completely self sufficient.

The power station would essentially become an orbital utility company providing power to anyone that wishes to be a included in it's "grid." It would be able to charge the companies/nations that own the powered spacecraft and would be able to grow with demand simply by adding either more stations or increasing the size of existing ones.

Orbital power stations for other spacecraft are a very viable business at this moment. Every spacecraft that is being designed is trying to cut weight. The elimination of a set of solar panels would be a huge step forward for the industry. Such a power station would not even be expensive to create. Some development of the beaming technology would be required, but the cost of launch and construction would be minimal. Since such a station could be sent into orbit with a single SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, around 56 million dollars, cheap by space standards.

The dangers of this concept are that the station would never be allowed to have a power outage. A blackout could make millions of people become lost, if powering GPS satellites, or even kill someone, if powering an manned space station. But this can be avoided by simply creating a network of the stations to provide the appropriate redundancy.

The economics of this kind of a system have not been completely worked out. Whether it is a viable business model to replace individual solar systems with a single power station is numerically unknown. But if implemented properly, the ability to allow companies to save money in the short term by paying for less development and lower launching costs, will certainly attract many players in the space industry who launch satellites.

Overall, space power stations are something that would be a relatively cheap space business to get into  tomorrow, if the industry accepts it. It is something that can start small and grow organically, with the industry that has to have electrical power no matter what.

To see another variation of the Space Utility Company visit "Mobile Space Power Plants"

Orbital Power Generation

Electricity is the driving force of the modern world. It powers our homes, our devices. It controls traffic and heat. For many, being without electricity would be equivalent to being without the sun each day. And this need will only continue to grow.

Electric vehicles will become more prevalent and possibly even replace gas engines. The world population is growing, with it the demand for electricity in houses and devices. Not to mention the fact that one-quarter of the world is currently without electricity and will eventually have it. Even without that growth, demand for electricity today is more than the supply. New means of power generation must be created.

As science progresses nuclear power plants may be able to move toward fusion instead of fission. This would create a great amount of power and would most likely meet the demand. But at this point that is not a viable option or even near to becoming one.

Renewables also have room for improvement but are viable. But no matter how efficient solar or wind become they will simply occupy too much space and continue to be an eyesore. While they have a small carbon footprint, their physical footprint is too large to meet future demand.

Here is the opportunity for space. There is plenty of space up in space. Anything in orbit around the Earth is invisible to the naked eye. We also have an unobstructed view giant fusion reactor at the center of our solar system, the Sun. Orbital solar power is a proven technology and is potentially a huge source of electrical power.

The reason solar power is so inefficient on earth is due to two problems. The atmosphere and engineering limitations.

The atmosphere absorbs a majority of solar energy before it ever reaches the ground on a clear day, not to mention night-time and when there is heavy cloud cover. This is not a problem in orbit because there is no atmosphere. And while there would still be day and night, they are not equal. An orbiting station can remain in sunlight for 99% of an orbit.

From the engineering standpoint, solar cells are only around 10-15 percent efficient today. However, unlike something like fusion, the performance of solar cells is increasing yearly. But there is no requirement to use solar cells either. An orbital station could just be a large mirror that focuses the sun energy onto a steam turbine in the station.

There is only one problem with a solar orbital station. How does the power get from orbit to the ground? It would have to be through wireless transmission. This could be done through microwaves or lasers. Both are proven technologies. However they require receiver stations on the ground. While these stations would have to be of a size comparable to a  standard solar station today, they would be fewer in number.

With the wireless power transmission there is a liability involved. If the transmission beam strays from the receiver station, it could potentially cause damage to nearby areas. But this is simple to control and the worst damage that has been predicted is sunburns a little more quickly.

The initial cost of the station, with current infrastructure, is too great to substantiate the construction of it. Studies performed by SERT (Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology Group) found that launch costs would have to be as low as $100-$200 a pound to make the concept financially feasible. Current launch costs are at best $10,000 a pound. But with the development of reusable vehicles that price will drop to the range required.

The orbital construction costs would also be something to consider. Anyone working to create an orbital power station would want to have a very clear construction infrastructure in place. This could be robots or even a dedicated manned space construction station. Neither of these exists today. But if the power station were designed as along the lines of an inflatable that could be assembled with very few pieces the infrastructure would not be nearly as necessary.

At this moment all of the technology for an orbital solar power station exists and is proven. The trouble is that the infrastructure to build it is not in place. This is changing rapidly, but resources for such a project will not be complete enough for at least another ten years. But at that point, the demand for electricity will have risen to such a degree that orbital stations will likely be a necessity and a large business opportunity.

Below are links to the National Space Society's site concerning Orbital Solar Power Stations
NSS Space Solar Power Webpage
NSS Space Solar Power Library

Friday, March 28, 2014

About "The Space Economy"

"The Space Economy" is a blog that is dedicated to not only recognizing the technological development of space but identifying where those technologies can/could be commercialized in the growing private space industry, now and in the future.

In order for a space industry to flourish, there cannot be one company or two companies in it, no single company has the resources required. There has to be an entire spread of companies all supporting and interacting with each other. The ones that make space suits, the ones that haul cargo, the engine manufacturers. These companies must be created to build a foundation for all future space exploration and colonization. But many wonder "Well what needs to be created in the space industry?" This blog is meant to deliver a few possibilities and identify that hurdles involved with them. We want to help spark ideas for new companies in a new industry.

But a bunch of companies making space suits won't alone be useful in the future space industry. For space to be a successful human endeavor there must be an economy set up within it. The economy of space will most likely be quite different from many economies we are used to on Earth. There will be a lot of questions to answer. How does one create a return both for the supporters on Earth and the risk-takers/workers in space? How will money be exchanged? What will be the money? What legal ramifications are there? These are all issues with the privatization of space and the development of a space economy that we will venture to answer in this blog.

Space today is what the Americas were in the 17th century. It is unknown, unexplored, dangerous, and expensive. But we know that there are resources out there and vast potential. But we haven't yet figured out how to, quite simply, make money from it. "The Space Economy" is an early step toward presenting the businessman and the engineer with the commercial possibilities of the new frontier.