TCS Daily

Looking Forward to Prize Fights

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 30, 2005 12:00 AM

I have two cool things to report. One is that space elevators and power-beaming are coming. The other is the way that they're coming.

First, the announcement. Alan Boyle reports:

        "Borrowing a page from the playbook for the X Prize spaceship competition, 
        NASA has set aside $400,000 over the next two years for competitions 
        to encourage the development of wireless power transmission systems 
        and super-strong tethers.

        "The Beam Power Challenge and the Tether Challenge, announced here 
        Wednesday, are the first two of NASA's Centennial Challenges, which aim 
        to provide incentives for technological achievements that could be applied 
        to future space exploration."

It's not a lot of money, but -- as the X Prize demonstrated -- you don't need a lot of money to accomplish a lot if you spend it well, something that NASA hasn't done, historically. And in some ways, that's the real news here.

Both the tether technology and the power-beaming are important on their own, of course. Space "elevator" technology is rapidly moving out of the realm of science fiction, as progress in material science makes cables strong enough to reach from the Earth's surface to a point beyond geosynchronous orbit feasible. With such a cable, it becomes possible to reach orbit via electric motors (which themselves can be solar powered), making the prospect of cheap spaceflight look much more attainable. And if you can get to space cheaply, you can build big things there cheaply -- instead of expensively and badly, as we do now -- and if you can do that, among the things you can build are solar power satellites that convert the unfiltered 24-hour sunlight of space into electricity.

But how do you get the power to Earth? Well, you could send it down a cable, if your satellite's at geosynchronous orbit, but you can also beam it, which lets you send power to a much wider variety of terrestrial locations, from a much wider variety of orbits. Hence the relevance of the power-beaming work.

Solar Power Satellites offer one answer to a question raised by the current wave of enthusiasm for hydrogen-fueled cars: Where will the hydrogen come from? You need electricity to produce hydrogen, and lots of it -- hydrogen is really more like a power-storage system than a fuel -- and if you get that electricity from burning coal or oil you pretty much vitiate the environmental benefits of hydrogen. That's just substituting smokestacks for tailpipes, which is no great improvement. Big nuclear plants are another option, of course, but some people have a problem with those.

In a way, though, what's really revolutionary isn't this stuff -- people have been talking about, and, in a small way, working on, Solar Power Satellites for pretty much my entire lifetime -- but the way it's being done. As some of us have argued for a while, a prize program like this one has a lot to offer.

Instead of going for a massive Apollo (or worse, Space Shuttle) sort of program, NASA is attacking the problem incrementally, and it's getting other minds involved. The way the prize program is structured (contestants get to keep their own intellectual property) encourages people to participate, and the goals get more ambitious over time.

What's more, NASA seems to have identified a suite of technologies that, taken together, look pretty promising where more ambitious projects are concerned:

        Aerocapture demonstrations. 
        Micro re-entry vehicles. 
        Robotic lunar soft landers. 
        Station-keeping solar sails. 
        Robotic triathlon. 
        Human-robotic analog research campaigns. 
        Autonomous drills. 
        Lunar all-terrain vehicles. 
        Precision landers. 
        Telerobotic construction. 
        Power-storage breakthroughs. 
        Radiation-shield breakthroughs.

Put all this stuff together and you've got the makings of an ambitious space program, with the R&D done on the cheap. Maybe there's hope for NASA yet.



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