NSS Applauds Northrop Grumman/Caltech Push Toward Space Solar Power

The National Space Society (NSS) applauds a recent Northrop Grumman announcement that it is providing up to $17.5 million to an initiative with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the development of Space Solar Power (SSP). SSP will be a major focus at NSS’s annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC)® in Toronto on May 20-24 (nss.org/2015).

NSS Executive Vice-President Dale Skran said, “We are delighted to see Northrop Grumman and Caltech taking a significant step toward creating a future that includes space solar power, a major step in the settlement of space. At a time when the U.S. Government has virtually abandoned SSP research it is encouraging to see private industry and universities stepping forward to fill the gap.”

Establishment of an operational space-based solar power system transmitting the sun’s energy to Earth is Milestone 8 in the NSS Space Settlement Roadmap (nss.org/RoadmapPart3). SSP could be a particularly attractive way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people in developing countries that don’t have electricity due to a lack of both power generation and transmission infrastructure.

Construction of significant numbers of Solar Power Satellites will create a large new market for transportation to orbit, greatly enhancing current trends toward lower launch costs and reusable rockets. This scenario establishes the groundwork for affordable space settlement – on the Moon, on Mars, among the asteroids, and in Free Space. A possible side-benefit of this project would be improved power sources for “electric” (ion/plasma) rockets, currently planned by NASA to play a key role in trips to Mars and other destinations.

The Northrop Grumman/Caltech initiative will focus on three areas: high-efficiency ultra-light photovoltaics, ultra-light deployable space structures, and phased-array power transmission. Up to 50 students, post-docs, and senior researchers will eventually join the team, who will use specialized laboratories constructed for the initiative.

A good place to find an overview of the current state of SSP work is the NSS Space Solar Power home page at nss.org/ssp. A wide variety of SSP material can be found there, ranging from reviews of recent books like The Case for Space Solar Power by NSS Policy Committee member John Mankins, to the world’s largest library of Space Solar Power free downloadable PDF books and reports.

Northrop Grumman and Caltech begin Space Solar Power Initiative

PASADENA, Calif. – April 20, 2015 – Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) has signed a sponsored research agreement with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the development of the Space Solar Power Initiative (SSPI). Under the terms of the agreement, Northrop Grumman will provide up to $17.5 million to the initiative over three years.

Working together, the team will develop the scientific and technological innovations necessary to enable a space-based solar power system capable of generating electric power at cost parity with grid-connected fossil fuel power plants. SSPI responds to the engineering challenge of providing a cost-competitive source of sustainable energy. SSPI will develop technologies in three areas: high-efficiency ultralight photovoltaics; ultralight deployable space structures; and phased array and power transmission.

Northrop Grumman’s Joseph Ensor (left) and Caltech’s Ares Rosakis (right) shake hands as part of the recent SSPI commemoration event held at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.

SSPI was conceived by three principal investigators from Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS) who jointly lead the initiative:

  • Harry A. Atwater, Jr., Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, Director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute;
  • Ali Hajimiri, Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering; and
  • Sergio Pellegrino, Joyce and Kent Kresa Professor of Aeronautics, Professor of Civil Engineering and Jet Propulsion Laboratory Senior Research Scientist.

Atwater, Hajimiri and Pellegrino have assembled a team of students, postdoctoral scholars, and senior researchers that will eventually exceed 50 members. EAS is building specialized laboratory facilities to support this team. Northrop Grumman engineers and scientists will collaborate with the team at Caltech to develop solutions, build prototypes and obtain experimental and numerical validation of concepts that could allow development to proceed toward eventual implementation.

“By working together with Caltech, Northrop Grumman extends its long heritage of innovation in space-based technologies and mission solutions,” said Joseph Ensor, vice president and general manager, Space Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Systems, Northrop Grumman. “The potential breakthroughs from this research could have extensive applications across a number of related power use challenges.”

“This initiative is a great example of how Caltech engineers are working at the leading edges of fundamental science to invent the technologies of the future,” said Ares Rosakis, Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the Caltech Division of Engineering and Applied Science and the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “The Space Solar Power Initiative brings together electrical engineers, applied physicists, and aerospace engineers in the type of profound interdisciplinary collaboration that is seamlessly enhanced at a small place like Caltech. I believe it also demonstrates the value of industry and academic partnerships. We are working on extremely difficult problems that could eventually provide the foundations for new industries.”

Caltech and Northrop Grumman have a long history of collaboration, dating back decades to joint work between Professor Theodore von Kármán and Jack Northrop. Von Kármán was a scientist and engineer who directed Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory during the 1930s and later co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Northrop was an aviation pioneer who in 1939 founded the Northrop Corporation, one of the legacy companies that united to become Northrop Grumman. This unique $17.5 million initiative is one of the largest corporate sponsored research projects Caltech has undertaken in recent years.

International SunSat Design Competition

International SunSat Design CompetitionSunSat Design is an international competition intended to accelerate the conceptualization, manufacture, launch and operation of the next-generation satellites that will collect energy in space and deliver it to Earth as a non-polluting source of electrical power.

The purpose of the SunSat Design initiative is to move space solar power out of the research labs and onto the public agenda. This is being done by virtual story-telling and networking on a global basis, explaining what space solar power is and how and why it will become the ultimate renewable energy resource for Planet Earth.

The strategy is to link global scientific communities with university-based (and other) digital media labs for the purposes of advancing knowledge of space-based solar power satellites (SunSats) and illustrating their many Earth-energy applications.

Winning designs are high-impact digital art, supported by credible science, engineering and business plans, that best promote media understanding and public acceptance of a path forward in using space satellites to deliver energy on-demand to any and all places on Earth.

Registration for the competition is now open, and team enrollments will be taken until January 31, 2015. Deadline for submission of completed designs and supporting documentation is March 27, 2015. Winners will be announced and their “Creative Visualizations” will be shown and celebrated in May 2015 at ISDC-Toronto.

See the International SunSat Design Competition website for more information.

The winners of the 2014 competition were announced at the ISDC-Los Angeles in May 2014, with six teams honored. Three of these were given cash prizes. The first-place award was $10,000 and there were two second-place awards of $5,000 presented at ISDC-Los Angeles. The three top designs have been published in the Online Journal of Space Communication:

The SunSat Competition is an initiative of the Online Journal of Space Communication in partnership with the Society of Satellite Professionals International, the National Space Society, and the Ohio University GRID Lab.

3rd Space Solar Power International Student and Young Professional Design Competition

The Space Generation Advisory Council is pleased to announce its partnership with the International Astronautical Federation’s Space Power Committee (SPC) to organize and run the 3rd Space Solar Power International Student and Young Professional Design Competition.

The competition aims to challenge entrants to submit a technical paper for a new and innovative technical concept for Space Solar Power (SSP). SSP, in its typical implementation and for the purposes of this competition, is the idea of transmitting power harvested from the sun in space down to Earth.

The winning entrant will be given up to USD 2000 to cover travel costs to Toronto, Canada, to present their paper at the 2014 Space Generation Congress (SGC) and to present a poster at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC).


ISDC Keynote address will focus on Space Solar Power

SPACE Canada (Solar Power Alternative for Clean Energy), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of solar energy from space, is sponsoring a dinner at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2014), the yearly conference of the National Space Society (NSS).

The dinner will be held on Saturday, May 17 from 7:00-9:30 p.m. PT in the Grand Ballroom at the site of ISDC 2014, the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel, 6101 West Century Boulevard.  The theme of Saturday evening’s event is “A Space Renaissance Celebration.”

In keeping with SPACE Canada’s mandate to support, encourage and facilitate international dialogue on solar energy from space, John Mankins, President of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions LLC, will deliver the evening’s keynote presentation, “The Case for Space Solar Power.”

Mankins, widely acknowledged as the world’s leading expert on Space Solar Power (SSP), had a 25-year career at NASA.  During that time, he led an $800 million per year R&D program and, for many years, was in charge of NASA’s studies on SSP.

Following Mankins to further discuss SSP will be Mark Hopkins, CEO of the National Space Society and former Rand Corporation Economist.  Hopkins and Dr. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, are working together to establish an international organization to build SSP.

Space Solar Power uses satellites in space to collect the sun’s energy, which is beamed to receivers on the ground and then fed into the power grid like energy produced by conventional power plants.

Mankins and Hopkins will explain how the first economically viable SSP satellite could be built in less than 20 years, followed in rapid succession by additional profitable satellites.  The resulting electricity could be sold at prices below those of competing alternatives such as coal or nuclear.  This premise is based on studies completed recently by such prestigious organizations as the International Academy of Astronautics.

“The sun produces 10 trillion times the amount of energy currently consumed by humanity,” said Hopkins.  “By harvesting a tiny fraction of this energy via SSP, the energy crises would be over.  Humanity would have all of the energy it needs for the foreseeable future.  Further, this energy is renewable and extremely green, producing almost no carbon dioxide and thus greatly mitigating the problem of climate change.  The Earth’s resources are limited.  A successful Space Solar Power program would smash these limits, leading to a prosperous and hopeful future.”

Online registration is currently open for ISDC 2014 with a variety of options, from single day registration passes to full conference registration with meals.  Discounts are provided for youth, full-time students, seniors, and members of NASA Federal Credit Union and the National Space Society and its affiliates.  Visit isdc.nss.org/2014 for complete registration details and discount requirements.  For registration assistance, call 408-736-2363.  For information on NASA Federal Credit Union, visit nasafcu.com.

New Watershed for Space Solar Power

The Case for Space Solar PowerBook Review: The Case for Space Solar Power, by John C. Mankins

Reviewed by: Paul Werbos, Executive Vice President, National Space Society

If you, like me, are one of those people who really want to do the most you can “to make the dream real,” you need to have a copy of this book on your shelves so that you can read it, reread it, and go back for all the important details. If you could only afford to have one book on your shelves, this should be it.

This book by John Mankins is a major milestone in doing the work required to translate the National Space Society’s general vision into a concrete reality with a viable business case. The author was the leader at NASA of virtually all the useful work on space solar power (SSP) by the US government in the last 25 years, so this book is a unique and authoritative source. Mankins also led the efforts in human and robotic technology in the first round of Bush’s “return to the Moon” program, and this book tells you a lot about what has been going on in those areas as well. In the final section, the book gets deep into concrete business plan options.

Not only does this book provide the blueprint for providing Earth with limitless clean energy, the book also offers a whole new basis for solid, realistic hope that we might succeed after all in the kind of vision which Gerard O’Neill inspired decades ago, where humans settle space in an economically sustainable way, beaming energy to Earth as part of a growing space economy.

Back in the late 1970s, when there was a lot of hope for SSP but the designs were unproven and questionable, many energy experts walked away and never looked back. In the 1990s, Mankins led the NASA Fresh Look work which exposed what was wrong with the old designs, and found new designs that would work but were still too expensive. When John and I worked together in a National Science Foundation study of enabling technologies for SSP in 2002, the most serious life-cycle cost estimates for the best available designs were still about 20 cents per kwh for the electricity. That was still more expensive than the average we pay for electricity generation today (about ten cents), and it required improvements in launch technology which were not then on the horizon.

But now, in this book, Mankins presents a new design concept, SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array), for which the best guess on cost is only 9 cents per kwh. This year there is also new hope for launch costs, which is a necessary complement to better design and more realistic costs.

The great beauty of SPS-ALPHA is that it relies on a “Lego” kind of approach, building up a huge structure from modules which all weigh less than a ton. This gets rid of the need for heavy lift vehicles, and we can use whatever gets us to space most cheaply.

Some people may be disappointed that Mankins’ plan for SSP does not provide for many humans in space, but that is part of the plan’s strength in reducing cost. The Mankins plan instead shows the way to build up the infrastructure we need in space before we can have a realistic chance to expand human settlement further. If we fulfill that plan, there will be ever more opportunity and need to bring more and more humans along, step by step, perhaps starting out with a kind of swarm city more like a giant expansion of the International Space Station (but with a net positive revenue flow) than like the habitats we will build eventually.

As a matter of honesty, I have to say that the book does not tell us everything we need to know to make the dream a reality. The book tells us a huge amount about competing designs for SSP, some of which might work out better after ALPHA paves the way. But there are other possibilities in the same design space, such as new ideas from the Naval Research Labs about how to handle heat flow issues within the ALPHA approach, and there are additional approaches to reducing launch costs. Nevertheless, Mankins’ book is the game plan for bringing SSP itself to reality. To make a positive difference in the game, we need to have that game plan close at hand, not just on our bookshelves but in all of our strategic thinking for all of the things we can do to help.

The Case for Space Solar Power is available in hard cover and in an inexpensive Kindle edition from Amazon. If you don’t have a Kindle, there are free Kindle reader apps at tinyurl.com/kindlereaderapps that enable you to read it on your computer or mobile device.

New Book: The Case for Space Solar Power

A strong case for harnessing space solar power is presented in this ground-breaking new book. Author John C. Mankins, one of the foremost experts in the field, presents his latest research in The Case for Space Solar Power.

The Case for Space Solar Power

The Case for Space Solar Power recounts the history of the space solar power concept and summarizes the many different ways in which it might be accomplished.

Specifically, the book describes in detail a highly promising concept — SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite by means of Arbitrarily Large Phased Array) — and presents a business case comprising applications in space and markets on Earth. It is possible to begin now with technologies that are already at hand , while developing the more advanced technologies that will be needed to deliver power economically to markets on Earth.

The Case for Space Solar Power lays out a path forward that is both achievable and affordable. Within a dozen years, the first multi-megawatt solar pilot plant could be in operation.

Given that space solar power can transform our future in space, and provide a new source of virtually limitless and sustainable energy to markets across the world, the book poses the question, “Why wouldn’t we pursue space solar power?”

The book is now available both in hardcopy and in an inexpensive Kindle format at Amazon.com. If you don’t have a Kindle, there are free Kindle reader apps at tinyurl.com/kindlereaderapps that enable you to read it on your computer, tablet, or other mobile device.

Origami used to design ultra-compact solar arrays

BYU engineers have teamed up with a world-renowned origami expert to solve one of space exploration’s greatest (and most ironic) problems: lack of space.

Working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a team of mechanical engineering students and faculty have designed a solar array that can be tightly compacted for launch and then deployed in space to generate power for space stations or satellites.

Applying origami principles on rigid silicon solar panels – a material considerably thicker than the paper used for the traditional Japanese art – the BYU-conceived solar array would unfold to nearly 10 times its stored size.

“It’s expensive and difficult to get things into space; you’re very constrained in space,” said BYU professor and research team leader Larry Howell. “With origami you can make it compact for launch and then as you get into space it can deploy and be large.”

The current project, detailed in the November issue of the Journal of Mechanical Design, is propelled by collaboration between BYU, NASA and origami expert Robert Lang. Howell reached out to Lang as part of landing a $2 million National Science Foundation grant in 2012 to explore the combination of origami and compliant mechanisms. (Joint-less, elastic structures that use flexibility to create movement.)

The particular solar array developed by the group can be folded tightly down to a diameter of 2.7 meters and unfolded to its full size of 25 meters across. The goal is to create an array that can produce 250 kilowatts of power. Currently, the International Space Station has eight solar arrays that generate 84 kilowatts of energy.

Howell said origami through compliant mechanisms is a perfect fit for space exploration: It is low cost and the materials can handle harsh solar environments.

“Space is a great place for a solar panel because you don’t have to worry about nighttime and there are no clouds and no weather,” he said. “Origami could also be used for antennas, solar sails and even expandable nets used to catch asteroids.”

National Space Society Position on Space Solar Power in Economist Magazine Debate

The Economist magazine has conducted an open, on-line forum on the topic, “Can Solar Energy Save the World,” which concluded on Friday, November 8, 2013. The Washington DC-based National Space Society (NSS) has voted “YES” in this debate.

NSS urges that the European Union (EU) allow Space Solar Power to be given equal treatment with other sources of renewable energy as part of the European system of feed-in tariffs, which have worked for ground-based solar power to create a viable new market for energy. Feed-in tariffs are a guaranteed offer of a price and a market to generators of renewable electricity and not a tax on imported goods.

Dr. Paul Werbos, Chair of the NSS Policy Committee, said “What are some good strategies to really help develop space resources? The best strategy is one which tries to ‘kill two or three birds with one stone.’ And so, at nss.org/EU [and reproduced below], you will see a new position statement aimed at three goals — to create new jobs where they are badly needed in the EU, to accelerate low-cost forms of solar farms on Earth, and to set the wheels in motion for serious market-oriented investment in space solar power.”


National Space Society Statement on Space Solar Power (SSP) and Feed-In Tariffs

Germany has long had a feed-in tariff system (EEG), which, among other things, guarantees a market and a price for large scale wind and solar farms. Some critics argue that these should simply be abolished, because of the damage they claim has been done to the German economy; however, the German economy seems to be doing quite well, compared to other major developed economies on Earth. The feed-in tariff is not a tax or a tariff like the tariffs we pay for imported goods; it is essentially just a guaranteed offer of a price and a market to generators of renewable electricity.

Just as we urge opening up the launch services market to more competition and new technologies, the National Space Society (NSS) also urges opening up the European electricity market to more large sources of renewable electricity. For the sake of lower energy prices, greater competition and greater economic stability, we propose that the feed-in tariff for large solar farms be extended to all solar farms in the European Union, and also to all rectennas to be located in the European Union supplying electricity from energy beamed from space.

Even just a year ago, the possibility seemed to be remote that industry might build such rectennas; however, the new design and analysis at www.nasa.gov/pdf/716070main_Mankins_2011_PhI_SPS_Alpha.pdf, combined with potentially useful efforts on key technologies to reduce the cost of access to space such as the DARPA XS-1 program and private sector efforts like SpaceX and others, suggest that we should not rule out such a development.

In the market based approach, we do not choose which technology we believe in more; rather, we offer the same incentive to all forms of benign solar energy anywhere in the EU, and let suppliers decide for themselves what to invest in and where. A firm price guarantee can be very useful in stimulating the kind of private sector investment and jobs which all major economies need today. For the EU, especially, a new supply of renewable electricity would be a great thing for consumers, who otherwise would be paying for more expensive offshore wind or imported natural gas — so long as solar suppliers on Earth or in space can meet the offer price. As in the past, this should be a standing law, allowing suppliers to decide on their own schedule for deployment.

Participate in the International SunSat Competition – Over $40,000 in Prizes Will Be Awarded!

The National Space Society in affiliation with Ohio University is pleased to announce that the International SunSat Design Competition is now registering competitive teams.  This two-year project is designed to link global scientific communities with university-based (and other) digital media labs for the purposes of advancing knowledge of space-based solar power satellites (SunSats) and illustrating their many Earth-energy applications.

International SunSat Competition

If you are a space scientist, engineer, academic, business or digital media professional with an idea for moving space solar power closer to implementation, consider forming a team to join in this effort. And please forward this message to others.

In the first cycle of this competition, two First Place prizes of $10,000 and three Second Place prizes of $5,000 are expected to be awarded at the May 2014 International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. For registered teams successfully completing the Feb. 2014 "significant progress point," an additional $1,000 incentive can be earned, and $1,000 travel assistance will be awarded to winners.

Winning entries of 2014 and 2015 will be published in the Space Journal as Issue No.18: Top SSP Designs.

To learn more, check  the SunSat Visualization Guidebook and look at the SunSat Design Competition website.

To see where the idea of a SSP Design Competition came from, take a look at SpaceJournal Issue No.16: Solar Power Satellites.

To see how Ohio University’s Game Research in Immersive Design (GRID) Lab, with the help of Georgia Institute of Technology, University of North Dakota and others in academia, has experimented with making the advanced science and technology concepts of SSP more accessible to the public, view SpaceJournal Issue No.17: Creative Visualization of Space Solar Power.

This competition is managed by Ohio University, the host institution for the Online Journal of Space Communication, but guided and juried by members of the National Space Society and the Society of Satellite Professionals International.