Issue 52, 1 December 2009 – 40th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Solar power: can ground solar beat space solar?, by Stephen Ashworth
  2. Comment from M. V. “Coyote” Smith
  3. Reaction Engines: let Skylon launch space solar!
  4. Space.co.uk up for auction
  5. An event for your diary next year: the UK Space Conference
  6. And finally: this month sees anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing ...

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(1) Solar power: can ground solar beat space solar?

Stephen Ashworth

See here for BBC news of the Desertec solar energy project.

The plan is to harvest solar power on a large scale in the Sahara desert for supply to Europe. The company offers solutions to the problems of smoothing out the power supply over the day/night cycle, and of transporting the power to European population centres.

I asked “Coyote” Smith for his thoughts, and he responded as follows.

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(2) Comment from M. V. “Coyote” Smith

NB: M. V. Smith is the person who led the Pentagon’s space-based solar power study last year.

(See “Space Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security”, available here in pdf format.)

M. V. Smith’s comments reflect his personal opinions and are not officially endorsed by the US Government, the Department of Defense, or any associated organization.


From the beginning of the space-based solar power study conducted by the National Security Space Office in the Pentagon back in 2007, it was apparent that humanity needs to develop as many sources of safe, clean energy as possible. Those of us who led and participated in the study are cheering from the sidelines whenever any energy technology advances the art to help supply future energy demands and thereby reducing the likelihood of energy wars. Furthermore, we advocate employing a wide mix of various safe, clean energy sources across every population center simply to avoid the grave risks associated with putting all the energy eggs in one basket. Whatever success our friends at Desertec enjoy is a win for all of us. Space-based solar power has a bright future, too. It is not a competition from our perspective. Each energy source has its pros and cons. We must optimise each.

Let’s face a grim fact. From a very dispassionate naturalist’s perspective, the problem is not one of depleting energy resources. Even petroleum is renewable. Rather, the real problem is the unabated growth of the human population with the expectation of an equal distribution of resources. We as a species are unchecked at the top of the food chain. As the nineteenth-century natural theologist, Malthus, explained, the tendency will be to overpopulate until resource shortages either starve us or wars thin us to a more sustainable population level. Such a population reduction would also solve the global warming problem.

Our study at the Pentagon sought to change the inevitability of Malthus’ conclusion. His basic assumption was that the Earth was a closed system, and in his day he was mostly correct. But in the twenty-first century our generation has the opportunity, if not the moral imperative, to convert the Earth into an open system by expanding our spacefaring activities to include harvesting the endless resources of space. Not only can we harvest energy and other materials from space, but ultimately we will ease the population strain on this planet by exporting humans to other viable habitats that we will create elsewhere in our solar system and beyond. We – all of us – have a manifest destiny, not of domination, but rather of salvation of our species and our planet through spacefaring. Not everyone will go along with this vision – it will be hard slogging and there is no utopia awaiting us in space, but our continued survival as a species demands such expansion.

We have insisted from the first day of our study that energy supply is a global problem – as is global warming. The two are inextricably linked and both far exceed any nationalistic concern. That is why we conducted our study on the wide-open internet, hoping to stimulate global awareness of the issues and to foster the creativity required to arrive at solutions to the problem-sets we face in making space-based solar power a reality. It is in everyone’s interest for space-based solar power to begin contributing safe, clean energy to our grids, no matter who fields such systems. Moreover, it would significantly advance the spacefaring prowess of those states who get involved, helping us achieve a more open Earth system along the way. That means jobs, economic expansion, real wealth creation, and confidence-building between states.

In addition to half-a-dozen commercial companies attempting to tackle space-based solar power, we are delighted that the Japanese have embraced the concept and are seriously funding studies aimed at fielding space-based solar power systems to deliver significant power to their island by 2030. They are on the leading edge of political support for the concept. India is also leaning forward and seeks international partners to study and implement a shared system. These are interesting times in international relations; multinational efforts are likely the way forward for most space programs in the future. Space-based solar power will undoubtedly be one such program.

We chose to look to the stars for solutions to our problems here on Earth. As we venture further away from the shores of our planet we are not exploring the final frontier. Rather, we are going home to the cradle of the Big Bang which gave birth to all the matter and forces that form us and everything we can experience. We must tap into the smallest fraction of energy that the Universe provides to fuel our journey. Spaceship Earth needs space-based solar power now.


9 November 2009

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(3) Reaction Engines: let Skylon launch space solar!

Reaction Engines Ltd have published on their website a study entitled “Solar Power Satellites and Spaceplanes: The SKYLON Initiative”, which is available for download in PDF format.

This study considers a launch system proposed by some of the participants in the 2007 NSSO report (see p.32). This is a two stage to orbit, vertical take-off, horizontal landing vehicle, so essentially a fully reusable version of the soon to be retired Space Shuttle. This system is compared with Skylon as a transport system for getting solar power satellite components into orbit, and Skylon (need I say?) is found to come out on top every time.

In general I think Reaction Engines should be congratulated on the wealth of information about their projects accessible on their website, and its attractiveness and ease of use. It’s worth checking from time to time for news, especially now that the engine development work is steaming ahead.

– S.A.

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(4) Space.co.uk up for auction

Paul McDonnell and Martyn Turner have just announced that the Space.co.uk website is looking for a new owner. They write:

A combination of financial and personal issues mean we had to make a difficult decision a few months ago to look for a new owner for the site. We did not feel we were doing it justice as we were struggling to find the considerable time involved in maintaining the website and creating the newsletter.

They have been looking for an organisation or company with more resources which might be able to continue the site as a UK space portal. The latest news is that the domain name and website have been placed in an online auction closing on 10 December.

Any takers?

– S.A.

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(5) An event for your diary next year: the UK Space Conference

The UK Space Conference 2010 will be held on 24-28 March, in association with the Space Education Trust and the British Interplanetary Society. The first two days are for the benefit of schoolchildren and teachers.

The programme is expected to be published soon here.

I’m told the venue will be Charterhouse School, as in previous years.

And don’t forget: nominations for the Sir Arthur Clarke awards close at midnight on 31 December 2009. These awards recognise people in the UK who have made especially important contributions to our capabilities in or understanding of space, or who have presented it in an especially inspiring way. Know someone who matches that description? Then send in your nomination!

– S.A.

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(6) And finally: this month sees anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing ...

... well, not the anni-versary so much as the luni-versary.

Anyone looking for another excuse to celebrate the arrival of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base should order a new case of bubbly: this month, around 23 December (I haven’t worked out the exact time), it will be exactly 500 lunations since that landing.

Eagle landed on the Moon around seven Earth-days into lunation 576 (Brown lunation number). The new Moon mid-December represents the start of lunation 1076, and a few Earth-days later the day will dawn over Tranquility Base for the 500th time since humans walked there.

But how many more desolate sunrises before we return to stay?

– S.A.

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