Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Russian meteor highlights important new energy sources

Last week’s meteor strike over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was as spectacular visually, and audibly, as it was geopolitically. The air-burst explosion tore out windows from buildings and injured close to a thousand people.

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

It also highlights a quickly developing industry promising to create the world’s newest energy monopolies out of whichever nation can successfully crack the many expensive problems of putting things into orbit. Both public and private industries are joining the new space-race to develop space-based solar energy.

Space-based solar energy is in its infancy today. Obstacles are still more numerous than solutions, and various government institutions may not have the necessary funds to feed their space programs any more. Yet there is a burgeoning private industry dedicated to making space travel both affordable and profitable.

Courtesy Space X
But there are huge problems for these companies at the outset. The largest and most important is in finding a suitable way to lower the sheer cost of lifting goods and cargo into orbit. Currently the average cost to launch a single rocket into orbit is around NZ$12,000 per kilogram.

Both Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk of SpaceX, with pristine straight faces, announce to the world they’re intentions to enter into the lucrative space-tourism market. They’re rockets are meant, they say, for the carriage of people into space for pleasure.

But with projects like theirs, whichever company can significantly plummet the costs of lifting goods into space will ultimately carry away the biggest prize. Since the government-run space programs set the price so high initially, due mainly to fiscal inefficiencies, private companies have great incentives to develop affordable rocket systems.

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 only NZ$1200 per kilogram. Rocket systems in this cost bracket start to become affordable. And moving the equipment necessary for industrial-scale space-based solar energy gathering would be closer to being profitable.

Putting advanced solar panelling into space would be extremely efficient. The solar panel farms, if they were big enough, could transform the sun’s energy into electricity and store it in batteries or other devices. Once converted into usable energy, it could be beamed back to earth using microwave radiation and picked up by receiver stations based on land.

Not only is solar panel technology advancing steadily to both become more effective and smaller, setting these systems in space neatly sidesteps many of the most towering obstacles for land-based solar collection.

Simply enough, the one place that doesn’t need to worry about inclement weather and has no concern for daylight hours is space. The ability to have multiple solar farms orbiting the earth or stuck in geostationary orbits could potentially ensure consistent delivery of high quality energy back to earth.

Putting solar panels on earth, even in some of the brightest, hottest places around is still a poor use of otherwise useful land. Placing those systems in space removes the need to allot some of our most energy-rich landscapes to house fields of solar panels.

Of course the electrical infrastructure of cities would need to be upgraded to cope with high voltage direct current (DC) to decrease energy-loss in the current alternating current (AC) system from 50% down to 3%. But with these changes, powering our cities with space-based solar energy is certainly possible.

Diversifying away from fossil fuels and creating a truly renewable energy system will go some way in reversing climate change. Less carbon emissions can only be a good move. And opening up the last great frontier of exploration to industrial enterprise will create new revenue strains.

Courtesy American Security Project
On paper, the benefits of collecting vast amounts of sunlight are truly impressive. What radiation from the sun doesn’t strike the planet zooms off into space anyway. Putting a few orbiting racks of solar panels out there to capture the rays is smart. Yet as the Russian meteor shows, there are still some problems to monitor.

If such a meteor hit any manmade object spinning around our planet the result would be catastrophic.

All 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 that rubble would continue to orbit the earth 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.

Meteors are not uncommon either. Plenty of them are sucked into our atmosphere each day. Most of them burning up before they do any real damage.

But the importance of the spectacular meteor event is in highlighting the dangers of space. No matter how many phones or computers rely on satellites, and whether solar energy will become a new strategic energy source, unpredictable rocks could still wipe all this technology away in a flash.

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

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

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

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