The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

A network of space solar power satellites powering the globe could be the first step towards an extremely lucrative space economy. (credit: © Mafic Studios)

A space joint stock company

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Members of Congress have begun proposing drastic changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Astute observers believe that before these entitlement programs are cut, NASA’s budget will come under increasing pressure, and thus many of the space exploration and science programs it runs will be curtailed significantly in the coming years. It’s possible that, by 2020, NASA could become a shell of its former self.

With just a little bit of imagination and a healthy dose of optimism, our national space effort can generate more resources than anyone previously could have thought possible.

The problem for NASA lies in the broader global economic trends that gained momentum in the last decade and will persist through this decade. These trends consist of the movement of American industry and services to Asia, particularly China and India. As the American economic base continues to be hollowed out, the United States government will continue to struggle to raise the necessary resources with which to carry on a vibrant space program. Indeed, by the time that Medicare and Social Security suffer painful cuts it’s likely that the US military space program will undergo major cuts as well.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way for our national space effort. With just a little bit of imagination and a healthy dose of optimism, our national space effort can generate more resources than anyone previously could have thought possible. If enterprising members of the military and NASA took the initiative to form the first ever Space Joint Stock Company, a wealth of resources could be obtained with which to create a flourishing civilization in space.

The military-industrial complex should seriously consider backing such a venture. If Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, General Electric, and other aerospace and defense companies each pooled a share of their industrial resources, they could create an entity that would grow organically. In fact, former military and NASA personnel could open this venture to other industries such as the energy and information technology sectors. Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Conoco Philips all may discover considerable opportunities for their respective companies in this emerging venture. Companies such as IBM and Google would most likely find that their current businesses could easily contribute much of the information technology that would be needed by the Joint Stock Company.

While this entity could grow organically with the resources of American industry, if it became necessary, the companies involved could spread the risk over a wide industrial base and easily raise upwards of $100 billion in seed money in the form of a highly sophisticated loan package from an equally diverse group of financial institutions. In this regard, a large group of banks and diversified financial firms could also spread the risk among themselves when making these massive long-term loans to the industrial consortium. The financial industry may even find that they would like to make much of the securities convertible so as to provide themselves with the opportunity to take equity stakes when the Joint Stock Company becomes profitable. Obviously, the former military and NASA personnel who would found this venture could raise money from private investors in addition.

The first division: SSP and debris removal

In any event, the foundation of the Space Joint Stock Company could be revenue streams from inflatable solar power satellites. The basic premise of space solar power (SSP) is to collect solar energy in space and transmit it to the Earth via non-kinetic means. The concept has been around for decades but has thus far proven elusive to its advocates because the ability to create large enough surface areas for the requisite energy collection has been out of reach for both technical and financial reasons. Consequently, SSP has been criticized for requiring a large number of breakthroughs to become feasible.

But, however much it would cost to develop these solar power satellites, the operations costs could undercut all global energy competition.

Significant improvements in the performance of photovoltaic (PV) cells have often been heralded as bringing SSP closer to fruition. But whatever improvements in PV efficiency occur, even if photovoltaic cells were of absolute quality, the greatest challenge for producing meaningful amounts of energy for competition in terrestrial energy markets continues to be the ability to establish extremely large photovoltaic surface areas in space. A critical breakthrough may not be in space construction techniques or in PV performance, but rather in the nature of the physical composition of photovoltaic cells. If photovoltaic cells were produced with elastic properties that would permit them to expand, then a significant opportunity would arise for a novel new architecture for SSP—inflatable solar power satellites. As the medium of space is a vacuum, it presents exceptional conditions to any effort to inflate balloons as they could be inflated to great size with zero resistance (see “SSP: a spherical architecture”, The Space Review, June 1, 2009).

As far as designs go, planar models would solve the problem of the beta angle, but the simplicity of spherical models may prove more desirable for massive satellites as they would not have to adjust to remain perpendicular with the Sun. In order to generate meaningful amounts of energy for consumption on Earth these satellites would have to be many miles long, so spherical satellites would likely reduce the complexity of the design significantly.

In any case, once in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), a photovoltaic sphere 16 kilometers in diameter could theoretically transmit in excess of 5 gigawatts of energy to the Earth via microwaves or other means, such as infrared lasers. This amount would be substantially more than the output of many nuclear power plants. What is more, it would be far easier to establish these inflatable structures in space than it would be to construct an equivalent number of nuclear power plants on Earth and manage their resulting nuclear waste. A dozen or so of these solar power satellites could alleviate much of the energy needs of a region of the US in a very environmentally friendly fashion.

Yet while solar power satellites of this size would be the most convenient for the present space launch capabilities of the United States, a vast increase in the scale of such satellites would actually deliver the optimum energy output for the whole of the American economy. For instance, a photovoltaic sphere 500 kilometers in diameter in a medium Earth orbit (MEO) could generate in excess of 50 terawatts in space. If there were three such spheres rotating in MEO, then this would be enough energy to meet the needs of the entire country, and even those of the entire world. Such solar power satellites would appear majestic in the sky and would constitute nothing less than “solar moons”.

Undoubtedly, the cost of three photovoltaic balloons 500 kilometers in diameter each would be extraordinary: likely in excess of $100 billion. The cost of a single 16-kilometer solar power satellite would obviously be much less, although establishing many of them in space would approach that of a few massive satellites. But, however much it would cost to develop these solar power satellites, once those costs were sunk the annual operations cost would probably only amount to tens of billions of dollars. This could undercut all global energy competition. If the total value of the global energy marketplace is around $7 trillion, then the total cost of the global energy outlay would immediately fall with the advent of these solar power satellites. However, it would soon rise again as energy consumption would quickly leap.

Securing the solar power satellites from debris would not only present a technical challenge for the Company but also a business opportunity as well.

If this energy concern achieved 50 percent global market share, then revenues could reach over $3.5 trillion. Some estimates have this energy concern achieving 75 percent global market share, which would put revenues at in excess of $5 trillion. As the entire slate of development costs for the solar power satellites would likely not exceed a few hundred billion, and as costs to operate the solar power satellites would likely not exceed tens of billions, then these predicted cash flows could mean that this concern’s valuation would be as much as $50 to $100 trillion. If this concern was based in the United States then it would double the national assets virtually overnight.

This company, again if based in the US, would generate over $1.75 trillion in tax revenue and there would still be more than $3.25 trillion left over in profits. If the entity was based offshore it would pay no taxes and there would be over $5 trillion in profits. Either way the shareholders of this entity would be faced with a tremendous choice: either return these massive profits in the form of dividends or reinvest the money back into space. If the entity paid taxes it could still return over $3 trillion to shareholders on an annual basis, which would constitute the largest return on investment in human history. However, some funds would probably be retained in order to keep a sizable cash position in the financial institutions that were lucky enough to do business with this entity. In this case, one option would be for the entity to strike a balance and return a trillion to shareholders, keep a trillion in cash, and reinvest over a trillion in space. And yet another option would be to keep a trillion in cash and reinvest the balance of over $2 trillion back into space. If the entity chose this option, the potential budget for former NASA personnel would go from $17.6 billion in 2012 to over $2 trillion. They could work wonders with such money.

Obviously such an energy supply would require significant defenses from space debris, so the first objective of the Joint Stock Company would be to secure the solar power satellites from these dangerous projectiles. Something needs to be done about debris. Even if NASA and the Air Force do not yet have the means to remove debris, it will nevertheless have to be removed at some point this century if the world intends to continue to access space. Space activity is expanding at a rapid rate, with a growing number of participants from established space powers as well as newcomers. As such, the amount of objects in space will grow so large that collisional cascading will surely occur, barring access to space for all. Therefore, securing the solar power satellites from debris would not only present a technical challenge for the Company but also a business opportunity as well. In addition to protecting the energy supply, a service to remove debris could place bounties on debris in the path of satellites from other space participants, or it could charge a fee of other space participants to patrol space lanes and keep orbits clear of debris.

To this end many prototype space weapons systems could be modified to remove debris. Ground-based lasers and space-based lasers could be utilized to ablate debris in LEO and lower its altitude. Co-orbiting assets could be utilized in higher orbits to intercept and de-orbit spacecraft whose life cycles have ended and could create debris at some point in the future.

And while the debris service is patrolling space lanes to keep them clear of debris it would constitute a “space fleet in being” that could deter nefarious actions on the part of potentially hostile space participants. Indeed, the solar power satellites should be accompanied by a number of space vehicles to guard them not only from debris but from other actors. While only the most dangerous debris would have to be removed, the practice of removing it would contribute substantially to the readiness of space forces. A debris fleet of decoys, space-based radar assets, co-orbital ASAT weapons, other interceptors, and other space bases could all be utilized in various orbits and in deep space to protect the solar power satellites. Space control and intelligence collection could be furthered if the debris service provided an additional suite of services for other spacefaring entities, such as on-orbit upgrades, inspection, maintenance, and servicing. These activities would enable the Company to keep better tabs on the space environment, friendly vehicles within it, and unfriendly vehicles in their vicinity.

page 2: the second division: space colonization >>