Has the World Finally Caught Up with Isaac Asimov's Vision?

Solar SatelliteI vivid­ly remem­ber meet­ing Isaac Asi­mov when I was a teenag­er. My father had man­aged to get him as a speak­er at the col­lege he was teach­ing, where as part of a Fes­ti­val on The Future, the Sci­ence Fic­tion writer was being asked to give a lec­ture on his advice for the future. Besides his impres­sive mut­ton-chop side­burns and live­ly demeanor, I also remem­ber what he spoke about.

One of the main points of his talk was that he found him­self great­ly influ­enced by an ear­ly piece of Sci­ence Fic­tion him­self. It was a nov­el called “The Man Who Awoke”, writ­ten in 1933 by Lawrence Man­ning. Despite some sil­ly dia­log and flat char­ac­ters, I actu­al­ly had read the book and real­ly liked it. It was about a rich her­mit named Nor­man Win­ters, who found a way to put him­self into sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion in a sub­ter­ranean cham­ber he’d con­struct­ed, for thou­sands of years at a time, mak­ing him a sort of one-way time trav­el­er. When he first wakes up in the year 5000AD, all of the world’s fos­sil fuels have been used up, and the peo­ple alive at that point use alco­hol refined from wood pulp as a fuel, and referred to the past cen­turies as the Great Age of Waste. The book is a com­pendi­um of pop­u­lar Sci­ence Fic­tion plots: in lat­er chap­ters, in the times that Win­ters awakes cen­turies lat­er, the Earth is run by a tyran­ni­cal cen­tral com­put­er (see any num­ber of Star Trek and oth­er Sci-Fi series plots), then he tries to inter­vene with a city of sleep­ers who can pro­gram their own dreams (see The Matrix), he then finds a world dom­i­nat­ed by anar­chists in enor­mous walk­ing robots who per­form Genet­ic Exper­i­ments, and final­ly, he reach­es the age where Man dis­cov­ers Immor­tal­i­ty (and just in time for him, too).

It was that first episode, how­ev­er, that struck Asi­mov as down­right plau­si­ble; as we know very well today, there are only finite reserves of fos­sil fuels, and we now know that burn­ing them at the rate we’ve been doing for pow­er and trans­porta­tion has led to cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate changes. After years of study and thought, Asi­mov (back in the 1970’s, when he gave this lec­ture) sug­gest­ed a scheme where we launched satel­lites into geo­sta­tion­ary orbit, much the way weath­er satel­lites are today. These satel­lites, how­ev­er, would use arrays of solar cells to col­lect the sun’s ener­gy and con­vert it into elec­tric­i­ty. To get that pow­er back to the earth, Asi­mov sug­gest­ed a microwave beam, that like a tow­er between the earth and the satel­lite, would nev­er move, and allow us to con­tin­u­ous­ly har­vest pow­er, with­out any inter­rup­tions of clouds or storms.

Much of Asi­mov’s pro­pos­al was dis­missed in the 1970’s, most­ly because it was too expen­sive, par­tic­u­lar­ly when you fac­tored in all of the rock­ets that you would need to launch and man­pow­er you’d need to sup­port in space to build such a struc­ture. A lot of peo­ple were still in denial that mankind would ever real­ly run out of oil, despite the Ener­gy Cri­sis of 1973 being a clear warn­ing shot off the US’s bow.

Today, with Man­ning’s 1933 prophe­cy com­ing true, and the even more seri­ous prob­lem of glob­al warm­ing from the Green­house Effect, Asi­mov’s pro­pos­al is start­ing to look far more attrac­tive. In fact, if you fac­tor in the sav­ings we get by using robots to build the solar arrays (anoth­er Asi­mov cre­ation, but odd­ly enough, he nev­er dis­cussed using them to help build his orbital con­struc­tions), improve­ments in pho­to­volta­ic effi­cien­cy, new­er, lighter mate­ri­als, and the idea starts to gain credibility.

I found that last bit out in an arti­cle on the web site for New Sci­en­tist, where the US Pen­ta­gon has sug­gest­ed Space-Based Solar Pow­er Facil­i­ties as a poten­tial solu­tion to our ener­gy problems:

A report released yes­ter­day by the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Space Office (NSSO) rec­om­mends that the US gov­ern­ment spon­sor projects to demon­strate solar-pow­er-gen­er­at­ing satel­lites and pro­vide finan­cial incen­tives for fur­ther pri­vate devel­op­ment of the technology.

Space-based solar pow­er would use kilo­me­ter-sized solar pan­el arrays to gath­er sun­light in orbit. It would then beam pow­er down to Earth in the form of microwaves or a laser, which would be col­lect­ed in anten­nas on the ground and then con­vert­ed to elec­tric­i­ty. Unlike solar pan­els based on the ground, solar pow­er satel­lites placed in geo­sta­tion­ary orbit above the Earth could oper­ate at night and dur­ing cloudy conditions.

We think we can be a cat­a­lyst to make this tech­nol­o­gy advance,” said US Marine Corps lieu­tenant colonel Paul Damp­housse of the NSSO at a press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day in Wash­ing­ton, DCUS.

The NSSO report rec­om­mends that the US gov­ern­ment spend $10 bil­lion over the next 10 years to build a test satel­lite capa­ble of beam­ing 10 megawatts of elec­tric pow­er down to Earth.

My favourite part of the arti­cle comes right at the end:

…the NSSO and its sup­port­ers say that no fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs are nec­es­sary to pro­ceed with the idea and that space-based solar pow­er will be prac­ti­cal in the next few decades.

There are no tech­nol­o­gy hur­dles that are show stop­pers right now,” said Damphousse.

So, noth­ing new to invent, and we could have much of the prob­lems of the end of cheap oil and Green­house gas buildup fixed with­in, say, 15 years. That might just save the human race from extinc­tion (even if we do lose the Polar Bear).

I am aware of the dan­gers of a fixed and con­tin­u­ous microwave beam, and we have no idea what it would do the atmos­phere. I cer­tain­ly would­n’t want to be a bird (or plane) that wan­dered too close to the beam itself. Nev­er­the­less, I can’t help think­ing that if we’d only lis­tened to Asi­mov, when I met him back in the 1970s, we’d be in much bet­ter shape now, but maybe it’s not too late to heed his advice 30 years later.

18 Replies to “Has the World Finally Caught Up with Isaac Asimov's Vision?”

  1. Sor­ry David, but the num­bers just don’t add up at all:

    The fact that no “fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs are nec­es­sary” just means that the project is pos­si­ble using today’s tech­nol­o­gy (just like wind pow­er, wave pow­er, etc. etc.), but you also saw the num­bers, right? “10 bil­lion dol­lars over a ten year peri­od to build a test satel­lite capa­ble of beam­ing 10 megawatts of elec­tric pow­er down to earth”.

    In the year 2000, the com­bined capac­i­ty of U.S. elec­tric pow­er plants was 604,514 megawatts [Offi­cial ener­gy sta­tis­tics from the U.S. gov­ern­ment]

    When I was a kid in the 70’s I kept hear­ing on the news that there was 20 years of oil left. Now, 30 years lat­er, the num­ber is 40 or 50 years, I think. They keep find­ing more of the stuff. Oil is still way too cheap, and the result­ing pol­lu­tion is still most­ly free (i.e. it’s not the ones who pol­lute who pay). That needs to change before any­thing else will change.

    I don’t buy into the 15 year hori­zon on fix­ing the problems.

  2. Jan — You’re right that 10 megawatts cer­tain­ly does­n’t even begin to take a bite out of 604+ megawatts. I guess I’m prob­a­bly too opti­mistic (and the thought that a nerdy Sci Fi Author of the ’70s had ‘the answer’ all along is prob­a­bly not a real­is­tic thought, either, but it sure­ly would be the best Revenge of the Nerds of all time!)

    I’m also now won­der­ing what would hap­pen to the elec­tric­i­ty after it reached the earth in that tow­er­ing microwave beam; how would it get sent around? How would it get stored? How would we con­tin­ue to build the machines that we’d need in order to turn that elec­tric­i­ty into motion, heat, and oth­er work? There are so many holes in the sce­nario, that I now begin to won­der how New Sci­en­tist could make so many leaps of faith in the story.

    I guess there are no easy answers, and worst of all, you’re absolute­ly right about the iner­tia that has infect­ed the devel­oped world with respect to chang­ing our habits, lifestyles and appetites when it comes to the gulp­ing of nat­ur­al resources and gen­er­at­ing of pol­lu­tion. Even if some cat­a­clysmic Nat­ur­al Dis­as­ter (and one worse than Kat­ri­na, and cen­tered upon an afflu­ent White sub­urb) hits the US, they won’t be able to put 2 and 2 togeth­er and change. I’ve no con­fi­dence in the Amer­i­can pub­lic or politi­cians, but I guess I haven’t quite giv­en up on hi-tech com­pa­nies. Maybe I should.

  3. ddruck­er — ” I’m also now won­der­ing what would hap­pen to the elec­tric­i­ty after it reached the earth in that tow­er­ing microwave beam; how would it get sent around? How would it get stored? How would we con­tin­ue to build the machines that we’d need in order to turn that elec­tric­i­ty into motion, heat, and oth­er work? There are so many holes in the sce­nario, that I now begin to won­der how New Sci­en­tist could make so many leaps of faith in the story. ”

    How do you think it gets sent around now? How do you think it gets stored now? your com­ment on how would we build the machines to use the elec­tric­i­ty is sim­ply dumb.

    The project is pos­si­ble and 99% of the solu­tions are here now it is just a ques­tion of willpow­er and neces­si­ty to build it. It is NOT a pipe dream and does not require any ‘leap of faith’.

  4. Geez, I’m get­ting it com­ing and going. 

    Milan­der, I’m not sure what you think is dumb about the fact that there are cur­rent­ly no elec­tric-pow­ered dump-trucks, heli­copters or even fac­to­ries to make these machines. I also think that say­ing that 99% of the solu­tions are here strikes me as an even greater stretch than the arti­cle suggested. 

    As for the project being a ques­tion of willpow­er and neces­si­ty to build it, I agree, but it, like any oth­er mas­sive ener­gy project in which some of the ele­ments are not ful­ly defined (like the con­ver­sion of the ener­gy to and from microwaves, the envi­ron­men­tal impact of a mas­sive microwave beam, how to best keep the beam steady and avoid­ing any chance of things going hor­ri­bly wrong and the beam blast­ing across the coun­try­side, and oth­er ‘minor’ details) is indeed a ‘leap of faith’ in the design­ers and engi­neers, at the very least. Has any­body ever con­vert­ed Microwave ener­gy to elec­tric­i­ty at the scale they’re talk­ing about? I don’t think so. What hap­pens to the effi­cien­cy of con­ver­sion at that lev­el of trans­fer? What do you shield work­ers at the receiv­ing sta­tion from microwave leak­age with? And just how do you design the receiv­ing sta­tion, not to men­tion the satel­lite itself? The largest solar array cur­rent­ly in orbit is prob­a­bly the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, and just yes­ter­day astro­nauts had to per­form what sound­ed like a haz­ardous space­walk in order to repair a ‘tear’ in the array. To sim­ply say that this is only a lack of will is over­stat­ing the case. I’m with you on that, but call­ing any ques­tion­ing of miss­ing details (and there were plen­ty of them) ‘dumb’ is doing a dis­ser­vice to your argument.

  5. Don’t see why this should be such an impos­si­ble task, con­sid­er­ing the alter­na­tives. A bil­lion dol­lars a year to try out what could mean an unlim­it­ed ener­gy resource is peanuts, please do com­pare this sum of mon­ey to the cost of — par­don the cliché — the Gulf War. Or, for that mat­ter the cost of drilling, refin­ing, trans­port­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing petro­le­um world wide. 

    Nat­u­ral­ly, it’s to be expect­ed that an ini­tial test run would pro­duce a minute amount of ener­gy. How much petro­le­um was refined and used as fuel a hun­dred years ago? How exten­sive a a tool was the inter­net fif­teen years ago? Obvi­ous­ly, every new tech­nol­o­gy ini­tial­ly only gen­er­ates a loss of invest­ment, that’s just how inven­tion fund­ing works.

    With a few test facil­i­ties improv­ing and pop­u­lar­iz­ing solar pow­er, we could hope for vir­tu­al­ly free ener­gy with­in our life time. Imag­ine the con­se­quences of that sit­u­a­tion — with the Mid­dle East no longer being of imper­a­tive strate­gic impor­tance, maybe there’d be a chance for peace in that war-torn region. All the resources we put into ener­gy pro­duc­tion today could be redi­rect­ed into what­ev­er we choose. Such as free health care, edu­ca­tion and fresh drink­ing water for every­one on the plan­et, per­haps. Wan­na be nerdy about it? We could also spend all those tril­lions of dol­lars annu­al­ly wast­ed on petro­le­um prod­ucts that poi­son the plan­et on col­o­niz­ing space. Or any­thing else you fancy. 

    Sounds like a pret­ty good deal to me, or at the very least a pos­si­bil­i­ty worth explor­ing, as our cur­rent way of life has warped our sur­round­ings to the point where we con­sid­er cli­mate change a banality.

  6. All visions attract naysay­ers. Accept­ing the chal­lenge of some­thing which might not work is vast­ly prefer­able to inaction.

  7. Struc­tures in orbit will always be nice tar­gets for space junk. Large solar pan­ells would be destroyed rather quickly.

  8. While huge arrays of solar pan­els beam­ing “free” ener­gy back to us on Earth are cer­tain­ly atten­tion grab­bing, I can’t help but feel there are far more prac­ti­cal solu­tions to the renew­able ener­gy prob­lem avail­able with­out need­ing to take the risk of launch into orbit, or foot the enor­mous bill. 

    Geot­her­mal “hot-rock” gen­er­a­tion — where holes are drilled down to a large body of hot, porous rock and water pumped down, heat­ed as it goes through the rock and then pumped back up to dri­ve tur­bines are being inves­ti­gat­ed. Sounds out­landish, but is appar­ent­ly feasible. 

    In Aus­tralia a new wave gen­er­a­tion design is being devel­oped (see http://ceto.com.au/home.php ) that is com­plete­ly sub­merged (ship and storm safe), and has costs per unit of ener­gy com­pa­ra­ble to wind gen­er­a­tion but is suit­able for base load (ie 24/7) — the wave ener­gy is always there to be extract­ed, unlike wind or solar. 

    Also, earth based solar farms where mir­rors focus sun­light onto heat­ing pipes to heat a work­ing flu­id (which can be stored for use dur­ing the night) seem to be devel­op­ing quite well. 

    Get­ting to my point — I think there will be oth­er, eas­i­er ener­gy sources exploit­ed well before orbit­ing solar farms appear.

    Final­ly, what would the car­bon foot­print of build­ing and launch­ing a solar satel­lite sys­tem be? How long would it need to pro­duce for to off­set that, and how would that com­pare to its ser­vice life­time? Don’t wan­na be a grinch, but I just don’t see orbit being christ­mas. Yet.

  9. To address Jan’s com­ments about the increas­ing size of oil reserves, there’s an easy expla­na­tion as to why reserves are increasing.

    Reserve num­bers are direct­ly relat­ed to the price of oil. The exact mean­ing of the term is how much oil is recov­er­able at the giv­en price of oil…Essentially, oil that is unprof­itable to get is not count­ed as reserves. The price is going up today and so are reserves.

    Canada’s oil sands (a LOT of oil) got added around $50 Bbl, I believe. There’s also the mat­ter of turn­ing Coal into Oil, which becomes prof­itable at around $65 Bbl, and coal reserves are at around 200–250 years. 

    Also worth not­ing is that OPEC changed some of its rules in the 80’s so that reserves affect­ed how much a nation could sell…and the “offi­cial” reserves of the OPEC coun­tries sud­den­ly dou­bled with­out any change in price or any new explo­ration. So some of the reserves don’t even exist.

    In any case, it’s the end of cheap oil, just not the end of oil. Not yet, anyway.

  10. I’m not sure neg­a­tive com­ments are at all called for or of use in this case as they are not con­struc­tive in nature, and they only give an opin­ion instead of stat­ing fact. “That is dumb” is an opin­ion, not a fact. If it were a fact, it would be sup­port­ed with evi­dence or at least a valid argu­ment (which, now that I think of it, would con­tain evidence).

    Seri­ous­ly, how much change can this arti­cle affect? In turn, take into con­sid­er­a­tion how much change the com­ment will make on an arti­cle that makes prac­ti­cal­ly no change what­so­ev­er. All the arti­cle is doing is relay­ing infor­ma­tion already report­ed some­where else, and adding the bit about it being Issac Asi­mov’s idea originally.

    The idea in the arti­cle is an inter­est­ing one. The best fea­ture I could sug­gest about orbit­ing solar pan­els is the abil­i­ty to point the ener­gy wher­ev­er you need it. Set­ting up a mil­i­tary base in the mid­dle of the jun­gle or a sandy expanse nowhere near a pow­er sta­tion? Just cre­ate a portable receiv­er and have the beam (maybe even just a por­tion of the beam) redi­rect­ed to your cur­rent posi­tion. The same could be said for orbit­ing space sta­tions that might slip into shad­ow, or for boost­ing the pow­er on some futur­is­tic moon settlement.

    Sure, a huge solar “sail” would prob­a­bly get torn by the occa­sion­al space debris, but would it real­ly be that expen­sive of an obsta­cle that it would out-weigh the advan­tages gained from its implementation?

    My biggest fear would be that the beam would be used as a weapon. Imag­ine a 10 megawatt microwave beam able to hit any point on an entire hemi­sphere. Once the AI advances beyond human con­trol, we’ll have spy satel­lites cou­pled to solar-pow­ered microwave can­nons and each time we dis­obey the tyran­ni­cal, mechan­i­cal gods we’ll get an unfriend­ly taze from the skies.

    Then again, I’m not all that con­cerned about glob­al warm­ing and the rate of ener­gy con­sump­tion as I’m sure we’ll nuke our­selves into obliv­ion long before we run out of fos­sil fuels. If we don’t, I’m of the mind that we’ll nuke each oth­er fight­ing for the last few drops of oil, and any sur­vivors will live in a hell unimag­in­able to you or I and will prob­a­bly kill them­selves to end their suffering.

    Can this com­ment get any longer? Why, of course!

    I’d final­ly like to say to the nay-say­ers: just because obsta­cles exist does not mean we should give up think­ing of solutions.

  11. 50 years ago peo­ple said that peo­ple walk­ing in space was IMPOSSIBLE. No one with half a brain can deny that the ice caps are melt­ing, we have a hole in our atmos­phere and tem­per­a­tures are ris­ing faster then gas prices. Why do peo­ple reject any idea there pea sized brain can not under­stand. We must do some­thing. This sounds as good as not doing nothing.

  12. Would you like to live next to a gigawatt beam that could cook you in a sec­ond if the aim of the sender was off by the mer­est frac­tion of a degree? Even if there were guar­an­tees against use as as weapon (which I would not trust) I would­n’t trust my life to such technology.

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