x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Gravity of challenges is not to be underestimated

Launching a satellite into space to capture energy from the sun is a bold enough idea.

Launching a satellite into space to capture energy from the sun is a bold enough idea.

But, in this increasingly interconnected world, global politics and business trends are representing a growing challenge to researchers and financial backers in this market.

From a cost perspective, it might be best for a company or government body to build a launching facility on a Pacific island near the equator, says Philip Chapman, a former Nasa scientist who is a proponent of this movement. Yet, he warns, "it'll also give that organisation or country strong advances of military uses in space".

"There are issues here about national security," says Mr Chapman.

Assuming space-based solar farms do become a reality, many questions remain unanswered, such as which countries would control the programmes?

With deep cuts made to Nasa's budget in recent years, the United States certainly does not have this market locked down.

Meanwhile, growing space initiatives based in Asian countries such as China and India represent a new shift that had not been considered back in the 1960s and 1970s, when space-based solar satellites first became a topic of serious discussion.

"China has shown strong interest, and made overtures with India, to make a joint programme on solar powered satellites," says Mr Chapman.

Indeed, last year, the China Academy of Space Technology proposed collaborating with space officials from India.

At the same time, there are numerous business concerns investors want addressed before they agree to back expensive projects. If ownership of a solar-based satellite - or a group of them - came down to a single company, or a consortium of businesses, how would the technology enhance or compete with existing solar energy providers here on Earth?

To address some of these issues, scientists say they are working with a mix of both government bodies and private sector enterprises while seeking funding from each.

They also note space-based solar would complement - but not replace - energy that harnesses the sun but is produced here on earth. Many of their reports, though, do push terrestrial solar as a replacement for fossil fuels or nuclear power.

"People have looked over the years at both solar power and nuclear power but in the inner solar system where the sun shines pretty much constantly, solar energy makes almost an almost unbeatable option," says John Mankins, the president of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions, a consultancy firm.

Given their stance in this market, it has been difficult over the past few decades for proponents to convince some private businesses to invest in the idea.

One key may be to approach satellite manufacturers the same way automotive makers link to parts suppliers. By building a broader ecosystem, there may be more parties interested in having space-based solar satellites take off.

"If you look at the infrastructure you have a few big players like Mitsubishi and Battelle, and you have a large number of companies that build piece parts - like Ford - and then hundreds of companies with parts," says Mr Mankins.

"Here you'd have no more than six to 10 basic pieces, and each of those would have components."