Many other technologies relevant to SBSP have made "enormous progress" in recent years, says John Mankins, who led the Hawaiian island test as chief operating officer and co-founder of Ashburn, Va.–based Managed Energy Technologies, LLC. A little over a decade ago, the best photovoltaic efficiency, or sunlight conversion into electricity, was 10 percent, Mankins says; now it can reach 40 percent. And satellite technology has also improved: Autonomous computer systems as well as advanced, lightweight building materials have also made leaps and bounds, he says.
Despite such progress, and spending some $80 million, SBSP has not gotten past the U.S. government's drawing board so far. A key reason, Little says: NASA does not do energy, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) does not do space.
The U.S. Department of Defense, however, has recently shown interest in SBSP. Air Force Colonel M. V. "Coyote" Smith cites high fuel costs, along with risks to personnel when supplying petroleum to U.S. combat theaters and bases. A 2007 Defense report (pdf) from the Pentagon's National Security Space Office (NSSO), viewed the commercial development of SBSP quite favorably, especially as traditional, fossil fuel energy sources get ever scarcer in the years ahead. "We've got to identify sources of safe, clean energy in order to help us prevent energy wars in the future," says Smith, one of the authors of the 2007 report.
The NSSO report said it would be in the fed's interest to encourage the commercial development of SBSP, but that the government should not design or operate the eventual orbiting power plants.
The previous government work, including a joint NASA and DoE report from the 1970s about SBSP, has left its mark on many current architectural schemes, though. This textbook approach calls for a massive, microwave-beaming satellite several miles wide that would sport multiple enormous solar arrays connected to a central hub [like the artist's conception on the first page of the article]. The craft would be perched in orbit about 22,400 miles (36,050 kilometers) above Earth, or a tenth the distance to the moon. There, the satellite would maintain a geostationary, or fixed, position relative to a point on Earth's surface while its solar panel arrays bask in the constant sunlight.
Captured solar energy then gets converted on board the satellite into electromagnetic carrier waves, specifically microwaves, ideally at a frequency of either 2.45 or 5.8 gigahertz (both fall on the spectrum between infrared and FM/AM radio signals) for subsequent beaming back to the ground. At that frequency, the waves pass easily through the atmosphere, although some energy—physicists do not know exactly how much yet—would be lost during the transfer, Smith says.
This invisible column of microwave energy, measuring perhaps a mile or two (two to three kilometers) across, would be beamed at an oval-shaped, ground-based rectifying antenna, or a "rectenna," of similar size, and from there the energy would flow into the traditional electrical grid.
Despite the clear analogy to a science fiction death ray, scientists believe the diffuse energy beam from above would not pose a health threat to people or wildlife, even at its most intense center.
"Microwave radiation is nonionizing, just like visible light or radio signals," says Jim Logan, former chief of medical operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center and an expert on aerospace medicine. That means it lacks sufficient energy, like x-rays and gamma rays, to remove an electron from an atom or a molecule to make a charged particle that can damage DNA and biomolecules, he says.