Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mobile Space Power Plants

The Orbital Power Station (OPS) was a concept that was presented recently for providing large amounts of clean energy to Earth. However, what if it could also be used elsewhere? As colonies begin to be created on the Moon and even Mars they will need some source of power. What if a mobile power station (MPS) could be created to provide energy to these colonies.

The traditional plans for creating colonies (we'll focus on the Moon) have been to send all of the required equipment to the surface of the Moon and set it up there. But the trouble with this concept is that the location of the people is rarely the ideal location for the solar power station and vice-versa. On the Moon people will need to set up base in the walls of craters in order to be protected from meteors and radiation, but solar plants must be completely exposed. The extra labor of building an entire solar array separate from the base adds a great deal of cost and effort to a an already difficult endeavor.

Having the solar plant placed on the surface also creates the issue of night and day. Large battery banks will need to be installed to power the moon base at night. This adds weight to be shipped and more reliance on a system that can break down. The entire system of a terrestrial solar power plant is faulty and complex. The transport and the construction simply are too difficult.

But all of this can be avoided if 1-2 solar power plants were placed in orbit above the base. These plants would be able to provide continuous power to the base by beaming energy to the surface using microwaves or lasers. (All this is explained in Orbital Power Station) And since they would not have to land on the surface or even be on the same ship, landing craft would not have to carry as much fuel, reducing the cost of the mission. The only thing that would need to be installed on the surface would be a receiving array to gather the energy beamed by the power stations and this is much simpler than installing solar panels.

Power stations such as these would be relatively simple to create, especially if they are already in use around the Earth. They could simply be a rigid array of solar panels with an ion engine attached. Ion engines along the lines of VASMIR would be ideal for this application. Unlike most ships, the MPS would be able to provide the power needed for a high thrust ion engine. Making the cost of transport extremely cheap since little to no fuel is needed.

The one final advantage of an MPS is its continual mobility. If a base is finally outfitted with a reactor that provides the required power, then the MPS is able to move on to the next spot that needs it. In this sense it can have a very long operational lifetime. In addition, it wouldn't even have to move to another base. An MPS could function as a temporary power source for space stations under construction all around earth or even as a backup for faulty satellites. Keeping the lights on until their permanent power supplies come along.

The overall construction and technology of the MPS is proven already. The only development required would be in the energy beaming technology. But an early version, which simply serves as a stand-in in Earth orbit, wouldn't need that. It could be physically plugged into the customer spacecraft.

Because of its long life cycle and mobility any company to create an MPS would want to take the strategy of a standard utility. Charging by the amount of energy provided over a section of time. The return on investment would be slow, but since the MPS could move from one job to another it would almost never be out of work.

This is a very basic idea that does have a place in the future and current space industry. It may begin as a small power source for capsules on their way to the ISS and then move on to powering temporary science satellites until their orbit decays. These menial jobs will prove its viability for when the moon and Mars bases begin to be created.


  1. This is reminiscent of "the High Frontier" by Gerard K. O'Neil in the mid 70's. This book helped spawn the L-5 society and solar power satellites. All o this was based on 1970's technology.