Earth’s appetite for power continues to grow. Since the 1960s, power consumption has quadrupled around the globe, with many countries opting to build large oil and coal plants to meet the demand.

But for Japan, a burgeoning economy without large oil and coal reserves, after the Fukushima disaster occurred, an in-depth review concluded the most viable long-term strategy was to focus on spaced-based power systems.

For this reason, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently announced its 25-year plan to build the world’s first 1-gigawatt power plant in space.

The vision of harvesting solar power from space and beaming it to earth has been around ever since Dr. Peter Glaser first proposed it in 1968. After considerable research in the 1970s, scientist concluded it wasn’t a viable concept just yet because technology hadn’t advance enough. The materials were far too heavy, and it would have required over 100 astronauts working with thousands of crude robots to create it.

Since then, technology has advanced in countless ways, not only making it doable, but for Japan, making it the best available option for controlling its own destiny.

What most people don’t realize is that solar panels in space are 10 times more efficient than those on earth because there are no day-night cycles, seasonal variations, or weather issues to contend with.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Many other countries won’t be comfortable with Japan having the world’s only expertise in building space-based power stations. Once the first one proves successful, it will become faster and cheaper to launch the next 10, or even 100 of them.

With Japan throwing down the gauntlet, they are effectively forcing China, Russia, and the U.S. to compete in an entirely new kind of space race. Here are a few thoughts on the massive implications of this JAXA announcement.

Beam Me Down Scotty

I’m sure many of the scientists are already imagining what it will look like, peering out over Tokyo Bay and seeing a man-made island in the harbor that is 2 miles across. The island itself will be glistening from the massive net studded with billions of tiny rectifying antennas designed to convert microwave energy into DC power.

Next to the antennas is a large substation that sends vast amounts of power through an underwater cable to Tokyo, to help keep the factories of the Keihin industrial zone humming and the neon lights of Shibuya shining bright.

No, you won’t be able to see the most impressive part, neither the giant solar collectors in geosynchronous orbit nor the beaming microwaves, coming down to the island from 24,000 miles above Earth.

Space-based power stations have been the subject of research and a common theme among the sci-fi authors for decades. But it is now very close to becoming a reality, at least within most of our lifetimes.

The 25-Year Plan

Over the next 25 years, Japan is anticipating a number of technology breakthroughs to set the stage for a series of ground and orbital demonstrations leading to the development of their first 1-gigawatt commercial system in space. This is about the same output as a typical nuclear power plant.

Every year of technological advancement brings a drop in the cost of building it. In the 1980s, the cost was estimated to be over $1 trillion. But by 2030, the cost is anticipated to drop to the $20 billion range.

Painted in broad-brush strokes, here is JAXA’s 25-year plan:


    • 2014 – Demonstration on the ground
    • 2017 – 1-kW satellite experiment


    • 2021 – 100-kW satellite experiment
    • 2024 – 2-MW satellite experiment
    • 2028 – 200-MW demonstration power station


    • 2031 – 1-GW full-scale power station
    • 2037 – Commercial space-based solar power industry (one launch per year).

Powering the Entire Solar System 

At first blush, most will imagine a space-based solar array powering our energy hungry businesses on earth, but that’s only part of the equation. It can be used to power an entire solar-system of devices, that will grow exponentially over the coming decades much like an Internet of Things in space.

It has the potential not only to continuously deliver limitless amounts of solar energy to markets on Earth, but also to power itself as well as a range of future space applications.

Historically, space missions have been “power paupers” – constrained in design by the limitations of power and the high cost of getting that power. For this reason a wide range of R&D projects have been shelved simply because of their excessive power requirements.

Mastering Six Critical Disciplines

The JAXA power station is estimated to weigh more than 10,000 metric tons and when fully deployed, stretch several miles across. To construct and operate an electricity-generating satellite, JAXA will have to demonstrate mastery of six critical disciplines:

  1. Wireless power transmission
  2. Space transportation
  3. Construction of large structures in orbit
  4. Satellite attitude and orbit control
  5. Space-based power generation
  6. Power management

Of these six challenges, the wireless power transmission remains the most formidable. So that’s precisely where JAXA has focused much of its research.

Wireless power transmission has been the subject of conspiracy theories and legends ever since Nikola Tesla’s experiments at the end of the 19th century. Tesla famously began building a 187’ tower on New York’s Long Island in 1901, hoping to use it to beam power to buildings, cars, and dirigibles until his funding was canceled by J.P. Morgan.

In 1960, William C Brown, the inventor of the cross-field amplifier, used a remote control helicopter to demonstrate his breakthroughs using wireless microwave power on the Walter Cronkite 6:00 pm news. Citing Tesla’s same logic, Brown was convinced this was the wave of the future.

The reason for converting energy to microwaves is because it’s impervious to weather condition and water in the upper atmosphere. In its broad-beam form, microwaves become safe for birds and insects to fly through.

Microwaves also have an efficiency advantage. Typically power has to be converted twice: first from DC power to microwaves aboard the satellite, then back to DC again on the ground. In lab conditions, researchers have achieved about 80% efficiency in this kind of power conversion, which is far better than with other forms of power.

Approach #1 – Huge square panel

Optimal Satellite Design – Two Approaches

JAXA researchers are working on two different approaches. The first one involves a huge square panel (measuring over 1 mile per side) that is covered with photovoltaic receptors on the top and transmission antennas on the bottom. This panel will be suspended by 6-mile-long wires connected to a small bus, which will house the satellite’s controls and communication systems.

Using a technique called gravity gradient stabilization, the bus acts as a counterweight to the huge panel. The panel, which will be closer to Earth, will experience more gravitational pull down toward the planet and less centrifugal force away from it, while the bus will be tugged upward by the opposite effects.

This balancing of forces will keep the satellite in a stable orbit, requiring a less-active control system, saving millions in fuel costs.

However, this approach still has problems. Since the photovoltaic panel’s orientation is fixed, the amount of sunlight that hits it varies greatly as the geosynchronous satellite and Earth spin.

Approach #2 – Two huge reflective mirrors

For this reason, JAXA has come up with another more sophisticated approach that solves the solar collection problem by employing two huge reflective mirrors.

The mirrors will be positioned so they can direct light onto two photovoltaic panels 24 hours a day. The two mirrors will be untethered from the solar panels and the separate transmission unit, requiring a far more advanced navigating system to keep them properly aligned.

As one researcher put it, “We already have the ability to perform docking maneuvers with large objects like docking the International Space Station, but coordinating the positioning of kilometer-scale structures is a huge step beyond today’s docking procedures.”

Final Thoughts – The Battle to Be First

Call it national pride or a desire to have your name written in all of the history books, but there are always compelling arguments for being first. Creating the first space-based power system will be no exception.

With U.S. influence eroding across Europe and Asia, a space-based power station has the potential to reinvigorate NASA and give a needed dose of excitement to the thousands of space companies that support it.

China has proven that its aggressive posture can accomplish huge projects in short periods of time, so they certainly won’t want to be left out.

Russia’s existing space industry gives it a significant advantage over most newcomers.

In addition to Japan’s obvious top 3 contenders are countries like South Korea, Germany, and France who are likely to recognize the long-term benefit to this technology.

While most haven’t acknowledged it yet, the new space race has just begun.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything




17 Responses to “The Next Great Space Race – Space-Based Power Stations”

Comments List

  1. Jay

    It would seem to me that privatization of space, ala Elon Musk, should be considered in the mix of dynamics that have the potential to accelerate the pace of change.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Jay, You're right, privatization could up the timetable considerably. And yes, the quickest response for the U.S. would be to give the money to SpaceX and let them run with it. :-) Thomas Frey
    • Steve Leete

      To date, Elon Musk has expressed little interest in this. It does not advance his primary mission of putting large numbers of people on the surface of Mars, so for him it is an undesirable distraction. There are other companies, however, who are very interested. Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon, and United Launch Alliance all have expressed interest.
  2. Gavin

    Shame it is going to take so long. My dream is a partial Dyson Sphere. A relatively small surface area of the Sun would produce millions of times more energy than we consume today. Could this excess energy warp space for worm hole travel?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Gavin, I'm frustrated too with the loooooong timetable, but maybe turning this into a country-vs-country, putting your national pride at stake kind of competition, maybe it could happen quicker. There are still a few unknowns and areas where they are breaking new ground that are forcing them to be more conservative with their timetable. Thomas Frey
  3. <a href='http://www.perkl-Light.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>David Thomas</a>

    Thinking about how much energy it will take to get all that hardware up into space. I wonder if anyone has done an analysis of how long before the energy it produces exceeds the energy it took to get it up there into production? (Maybe it ends up more cost effective to do some of the manufacturing on the moon?)
  4. <a href='http://Et3.nl' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Colin Hicks</a>

    T. Frey, So glad you wrote this. This is exactly what countries should be competing against; long term energy supply. But please note, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is being built in S France right now. ITER involves a consortium of nations that are fitting the $20+Bln price tag. It will be the largest Tocamak ever built and prove we can net energy via fusion. What I admire about Japan (Obayashi Corp) is that the are adamant on building the infamous 'space elevator' by '50 (graphene for the tether). If Japan has it's way, they will have a monopoly to getting stuff into LEO. And that is a 'space race' worth fighting for.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Colin, Thanks for mentioning the ITER. But keep in mind that there are huge advantages to building power stations in space. Eventually we will need infrastructure in space to support many different kinds of commercial space ventures, and the sooner we can get the first ove operational, the sooner we can start doing business in space. Thomas Frey
  5. Dean

    Great article. You filled in some of the details that were missing in other treatments of space based solar power that I've read. George Friedman is a big advocate of space based solar power too. In his book "The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century", Friedman predicts that space based solar power will become so important that it will lead to a space based war between an ascendant and more aggressive Japan and the US in the middle of the century: http://www.amazon.com/Next-100-Years-Forecast-Century/dp/0767923057/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399774856&sr=1-1&keywords=george+friedman Here's a teaser from Friedman's book. Which four countries will be the most important in the 21st century? The first one is easy: the US. I'll bet you couldn't guess 2 of the other 3. Of course that is just his prediction, but he supports it with geopolitical analysis that is persuasive.
  6. <a href='http://takeme2space.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dave</a>

    Great article Tom. We had APJ Abdul Kalam (von Braun of India) announce a 6 country collaboration for Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) at isdc.nss.org/2013 last year in May. John Mankins is one of the top researchers in SBSP. Check out his latest book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Case-Space-Solar-Power-ebook/dp/B00HNZ0Z96
  7. <a href='http://www.solutioncell.net' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Shawn Paul Boike</a>

    Fantastic Article! I am leading some teams on this subject & currently attending the International Space Development Conference in LAX Sheraton www.ISDC.nss.org/2014. We will be there within 15 years and it does more than just power, does more communications & We will harden existing grid.
  8. <a href='http://www.adeptium.com/' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jon Green</a>

    Tom, you mention Tesla's prototype power transmission tower. I'm sure you're aware, but for anyone else reading this who isn't, that tower was built at Wardenclyffe. Matthew Inman, author and cartoonist of the comics site The Oatmeal, started a spectacularly successful crowdfunded campaign to buy Wardenclyffe, with the intent to found a museum on the site of Tesla's audacious radio and power experiments. His blog about it is here: http://theoatmeal.com/blog/tesla_museum The site has been bought, through a Kickstarter, but about another US$8m is needed to build and staff the museum. Inman's trying to put some pressure on Elon Musk (coincidentally mentioned in the first comment), founder of Tesla Motors, to fund the museum dedicated to the man for whom Musk named his company. (CNN coverage here: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/14/tech/social-media/elon-musk-tesla-oatmeal/) Inman drew a two-part cartoon about it. The first page (here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla_model_s) talks about Inman's love for his Tesla Model S; the second about Musk, and puts the squeeze on. Both are entertaining! Musk is a stubborn man, but not without philanthropy. It'll be interesting to see if Matthew Inman succeeds.
  9. <a href='http://www.adeptium.com/' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jon Green</a>

    Oops. Fingers ran away with me. It was actually on Indiegogo, not Kickstarter. The funding has closed now, of course, but the page is here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/let-s-build-a-goddamn-tesla-museum--5
  10. Peter Nørgaard

    Thank´s for your thoughts, Thomas Frey..! Here in Denmark, Scandinavia = Denmark, Norway & Sweden + the other four Nordic countries = Faroe Islands, Greenland, Island & Finland, (with only around 28 million citizens)+ in the rest of northern Europe, we have a huge windpower & the industri going on & going in the privatizaton of the mankinds common air & wind. What´s your oppinion concerning the privatization of the mankinds air, water & ... SPACE..? Best regards, from the northern part - LøgstØR in Himmerland - of Denmark. To you & to all friendly bloggers.: Welcome to the Viking area.: The Nordic countries ...
  11. <a href='http://madhatter.ca' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Wayne Borean</a>

    New idea? Horse manure. This has been talked about since the sixties. It was technologically possible using Apollo systems. It was probably even financially possible, but fossil fuels were cheaper (as long as the fossil fuel companies got their government subsidies anyway). It's a damned good idea. Too bad the only big boosters currently available are Russian.
  12. <a href='http://Website' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Will</a>

    This is robust article on the state of space-based solar power, but I'm surprised that it leaves out two topics: robotics and the moon. Some published research has argued that it would be cost-effective—based primarily on the tremendous amount of energy required to move equipment and materials into orbit—to deploy robots on the moon to build the space-side of the system on the moon surface using raw materials available on the moon. Recent advances in robotic technology, and decades of experience by NASA and other institutions remotely controlling machines in space, suggest we explore this possibility... http://sservi.nasa.gov/articles/the-luna-ring-concept/ http://www.space.com/23810-moon-luna-belt-solar-power-idea.html

Leave a Reply