Former Indian President A.P.J. Kalam has lent his name to a new cooperative effort by experts in the U.S. and India to advance space solar power (SSP) as a way to improve life on Earth.
Kalam, 79, is a space pioneer who served as the 11th president of India. He and his former associates at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) have teamed with the Washington-based National Space Society (NSS) for an initiative aimed at accomplishing the work necessary to field a system of large satellites that would collect solar energy and beam it safely to Earth’s surface.
“A large mission like space solar power will need the combined efforts of many nations,” Kalam said Nov. 4 in a conference call from India. “I am certain that harvesting solar power in space can upgrade the living standard of the human race.”
Kalam was joined on the line by John Mankins, a former exploration chief technologist at NASA who is president of the Space Power Association, and T.K. Alex, director of the ISRO’s Satellite Center in Bengaluru. Alex, who led development of the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, will join Mankins as co-principal investigators on the Kalam-National Space Society Energy Initiative.
The group plans a bilateral meeting in Huntsville, Ala., next May to establish a course of action and organizational structure.
While NSS CEO Mark Hopkins says that meeting will be organized around Indian and U.S. participants, plans call for broadening the effort to include other nations — notably Japan, which has done advanced work in space solar power.
Kalam says the topic may be included during President Barack Obama’s upcoming summit with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but a more likely route to the top levels of spacefaring nations will come in presentations at future G-8 and G-20 economic summits.
Ideally, different nations will contribute SSP components based on their particular skills, he says. For India and the U.S., cooperation in technology development also can work, he adds.
Alex says India already has a significant terrestrial solar power industry based in the country’s north. The nation also is working in multi-junction solar arrays which, while not as advanced as similar technology in the U.S., could lead to the solar-power conversion efficiency needed to make SSP practical. Similarly, Kalam cited India’s work in reusable launch vehicle technology as a way to hold down the cost of getting SSP payloads to orbit, and said that work could go faster if the U.S. and India collaborate.
Mankins cited a “10-10-10” rule for a first prototype in geostationary orbit that could be a goal for the new bilateral initiative.
Such a system would deliver 10 megawatts of power, cost less than $10 billion to build and launch, and be ready in less than 10 years. The system would consist of a large satellite to collect the Sun’s energy and convert it into microwaves, which would be beamed to an antenna on Earth that would collect the microwaves for conversion to electricity and transmission through the existing power grid.
The antenna would be as open as chicken wire, Hopkins says, which would permit farmers to grow crops under it. And the beam would be so diffuse that “you can walk through the beam, even if you’re naked, and it’s not going to hurt you.”