Beam-down power is a common staple in science fiction. In this kind of a system, a society receives energy from a constellation of massive solar collectors in orbit, which is beamed down to the surface usually in the form of microwave lasers, which are then converted to usable electricity. Now it seems Northrop Grumman has cleared a hurdle towards just such a system, and, not surprisingly, I have some thoughts. Excerpt:
“As far as the technologies go, we’re very confident in our design and we’ve proven it out,” Tara Theret, Northrop Grumman’s Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) program director, told SpaceNews. “Now, it’s just building, testing and integrating the rest of the hardware on a challenging timeline.”
Northrop Grumman announced Dec. 15 the successful demonstration of a key element of SSPIDR, the ability to beam radio frequency energy toward various antennas by steering the beam. The testing was conducted in one of Northrop Grumman’s anechoic test chambers in Baltimore.
Next, Northrop Grumman will “take those findings and translate them into our prototype, which we anticipate launching in 2025 to actually show the capability of beaming RF energy down to the planet,” said Jay Patel, vice president of Northrop Grumman Remote Sensing Programs.
Beyond the prototype for the future objective system, Northrop Grumman will need to shrink electronic components and significantly scale up the quantity of “sandwich tiles,” or panels of photovoltaic cells to collect solar energy and provide power to another layer of components that enable solar-to-RF conversion and beamforming.
If solar power can be gathered in space and beamed to the ground, there are many promising applications, Patel said.
“If you have a flood or a hurricane that knocks out power to an area, it takes weeks sometimes for them to get back online,” Patel said. “This system can provide temporary power during those periods until that infrastructure is built back up.”
So the possibilities of this technology are largely due to the ability to “steer” the beam – indeed, that seems to be what this breakthrough is mostly about. Now think about that for a moment.
In order for this to be useful on any scale, the amount of power being beamed down would be massive. It would have to be carefully aimed at a collection facility, something capable of capturing that massive amount of power and translating it into usable electricity. Granted I’m not an engineer, but that sounds like a pretty fragile system. What happens if there is an earthquake, or some other event that disturbs that delicate alignment? Will the beamdown stations be in a carefully plotted geosynchronous orbit, or will they have to be re-aligned every time they come over the horizon, and maintain that alignment as they pass over the receiving facility?
All that is worth discussing, but here’s the one thing I don’t see mentioned in the article: Has no one involved in this given any thought to what a horrendous weapon this technology could be, if in the control of the wrong people? Say, at the offices of an inconvenient political opponent, or some activist group that the powers-that-be find irksome? Like, say, the NRA?
Even ten years ago I wouldn’t have worried too much about this kind of thing. I would have snorted and written it off as a paranoid conspiracy theory, suitable for enriching lawns. But now? Given the current political climate? Think on it, True Believers; how many in the political arena today would you trust with this kind of a weapon?