As far as legislative moments go, Wednesday’s passage of a minor amendment to an innocuous U.S. House resolution wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. But for space exploration enthusiasts, the amendment offered by U.S. Rep. Kevin Mullin, D-Calif., was kind of a big deal.
That’s because, for the first time since the 1970s, the idea of space-based solar power has been addressed in legislation by the US Congress.
“Although the technology to harvest solar energy in space and send it to the surface in the form of electricity is not yet commercially viable on a large scale, we already know from early research that it is possible,” Mullin said during a meeting of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Wednesday.
Mullin was trying to change House Resolution 2988, a bill instructing NASA and the US Department of Energy to collaborate on key areas of research and development, including propulsion, artificial intelligence, astrophysics, earth sciences and quantum computing. He’s been trying to add space-based solar power to the list. The amendment passed overwhelmingly by a bipartisan committee vote.
In his remarks, Mullin noted that Europe, Japan, China and the UK are all studying the technology and considering demonstrations in space. And in the United States, the California Institute of Technology recently demonstrated the ability to wirelessly transmit energy into space and transmit detectable energy to Earth.
“Much of the technology that once made this energy source the work of science fiction is now much cheaper and easier to implement than ever before, making it within our reach,” Mullin said. “But it’s not inevitable that this promising research will become feasible on a large scale. There are still scientific and engineering hurdles to overcome. And if the United States doesn’t do it, we know our global friends and competitors will.”
Sending a message
The legislation, with Mullin’s amendment now attached, is expected to be voted on by committee on Thursday. If passed, as expected, it will likely become part of a House authorization bill later this year.
The House resolution provides no funding for these initiatives, and it’s not like NASA and the Department of Energy are abandoning everything tomorrow and starting work on solar space power. But the resolution signals Congressional intent to NASA and the Department of Energy that they are interested in seeing some movement on this matter. This could portend possible funding.
Prior to its passage, the amendment was supported by several space advocacy groups, including the Alliance for Space Development, the Space Frontier Foundation and the National Space Society. “This is the first time since the 1970s that the idea of space solar power has been addressed in legislation,” said Jonathan Dagle, policy officer for the National Space Society. He called the amendment “a small but significant victory.”
NASA could do with a little prodding on the matter. At the International Space Development Conference last year, a NASA official said the agency had launched a near-term study to assess the prospects for space-based solar energy. This was the agency’s first real look at the subject in about two decades. However, that study has not been released publicly, as there were apparently some political concerns about the first draft. The revised study could finally be released in late June or July.
Part of the renewed interest in solar power from space is due to expanding launch capabilities, particularly the potential of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle to deliver large payloads into orbit with reusable first and second stages. This dramatic improvement in launch and upmass costs could help address some of the economic concerns with the technology, namely that it’s often more efficient to put solar panels in the desert than in space.
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