Could the Glasser/O’Neill dream of giant solar power satellites beaming power to Earth ever be realized as a result of the X-37B experiment?
The X-37B, the secretive uncrewed reusable space plane, has lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft is loaded with a variety of experiments, some from NASA, some from the United States Space Force. One experiment, testing the microwave transmission of solar energy captured from space, has the potential to change the world.
The idea of collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it to Earth was first described by Peter Glasser in 1968. Glasser subsequently acquired a patent in 1973. During the Carter administration, when an energy crisis rocked the world during the Iranian Revolution, NASA and the Energy Department conducted feasibility studies of the concept.
Around the time that Glasser received his patent, a Princeton physics professor named Gerard K. O’Neill began to develop ideas for free-flying space colonies in an article in Physics Today, the idea being that we don’t need to live on another world, such as the Moon or Mars. We can build our own worlds, using materials mined from the moon and asteroids.
A year later, O’Neill proposed that these space colonies be paid for by having the colonies build massive space-based solar collectors. These solar power satellites, also built with lunar and asteroid materials, would provide a way to wean the Earth from fossil fuels.
The goals of the X-37B solar power experiment are much more modest than upending the planet’s energy economy. The military is interested in beamed solar power for two applications.
Drones that operate on beamed solar power could, in theory at least, fly indefinitely. The technology could also provide power to other spacecraft, satellites, or even rovers on the moon, say in the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles, where water ice resides.
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