Space-based energy attracts enterprising entrepreneurs

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spacecraft are well advanced

COMMENT

Last week’s meteorite explosion over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was as spectacular visually and audibly as it was geopolitically. The air-burst blast tore windows from buildings and injured more than 1000 people.

The event offers an extremely vivid reminder of not only the size of Earth – and Russia is the largest country by far – but also the enormous expanse of space.

It also highlights a quickly developing space industry promising to create the world’s newest energy monopolies out of whichever nation can successfully crack the many expensive problems of putting objects into orbit.

Public and private industries are clambering to join the space race and the development of space-based solar energy.

Obstacles are still more numerous than solutions, and government institutions may no longer have the funds to feed their space programmes. Yet there is a burgeoning private industry intent on making space travel affordable and profitable.

The most important issue is lowering the massive expense of lifting cargo into orbit. The average cost of launching a single rocket is around $NZ12,000 a kilogram.

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk of SpaceX are already in the throes of entering the lucrative space-tourism market. Their spacecraft are meant for the carriage of people into space for pleasure, they say.

Sir Richard's project is well advanced, with initial test flights already a success.

With projects like these, whichever company can significantly reduce the cost of lifting people and cargo into space will clinch the biggest prize. Since government-run space programmes set the price so high initially because of fiscal inefficiencies, private companies have enormous incentives to develop affordable rocket systems.

Fixing the problems

To rectify the lift problem SpaceX, a private company operating in the United States, will test a new rocket this year that may reduce lift costs to just $NZ1200 a kilo.

Rocket systems in this range start to become affordable. And moving the equipment necessary for industrial-scale space-based solar energy capture would be a giant step closer to being profitable.

Putting advanced solar panelling into space would be a highly efficient energy source. The solar panel farms, if they were big enough, could transform the sun’s energy into electricity, storing it in batteries. Once converted into usable energy, it would be beamed back to earth by microwave radiation to receiver stations.

Not only is solar panel technology becoming more effective and smaller, setting up such systems in space neatly sidesteps huge obstacles for land-based solar collection.

Simply enough, space is the one place which doesn’t need to worry about inclement weather and has no concern for daylight hours.

Putting solar panels on earth, even in some of the brightest, hottest areas, is still a poor use of otherwise useful land. Placing those systems in space removes the need to sacrifice landscapes to huge fields of solar panels.

Diversifying away from fossil fuels and creating a truly renewable energy system will also help  climate change. Fewer carbon emissions can only be good, and opening up the last great frontier of exploration to industrial enterprise will create new revenue strains.

On paper, the benefits of harnessing vast amounts of sunlight are truly impressive. What radiation from the sun doesn’t strike the planet zooms off into space anyway.

So building orbiting racks of solar panels to capture the escaping rays is smart. Yet as the Russian meteor explosion shows, there are still some dangers worth monitoring.

Dangers still abound

If a similar space rock hit a man-made object orbiting Earth the result would be catastrophic.

The debris would not burn up immediately in the atmosphere. Instead, as shown when China shot down one of their satellites in 2007, most of it would continue orbiting the planet in entirely unpredictable paths, some of it at tremendous velocities.

“Space-junk”, as it is called, already is a danger to orbiting satellites. More is added with each rocket launch.

Asteroids are not uncommon, either, and plenty are sucked into our atmosphere daily. Most are small, however, and burn up before they do any real damage.

But the latest spectacular meteor event highlights the real dangers of space. No matter how many phones or computers rely on satellites, and whether solar energy becomes a new strategic energy source, unpredictable rocks could still wipe critical technology away in a flash of light.

The geopolitical significance of space is being increasingly recognised worldwide. Advanced countries from the EU to China and Japan are trying to establish footholds in space. And while the United States has the most comprehensive space infrastructure, others are quickly catching up.

Following right behind them are the private companies. The potential investment returns of developing space programmes are already drawing some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs to the race.

The trophy of developing affordable and profitable rocket lift costs will open a gigantic new energy market that could seriously change the structure of geopolitics.

Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict

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