When President Obama visits India in a couple of weeks to help cement the two countries’ strategic and economic relationship, he should make room on the agenda for a visionary plan to create a joint space-based solar energy program.
That’s the provocative recommendation of a recent report drafted by a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, and published by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank based in New Delhi and funded by India’s defense ministry.
As readers of NEXT100 know, space-based solar energy is an unproven but nearly unlimited source of clean, renewable energy. Photovoltaic panels in orbit around the Earth would capture intense solar energy around the clock—with no down time for clouds or night—and then beam it down to an earth receiving station in the form of microwaves. The energy would then be converted into electrical current suitable for the power grid.
India has a strong interest in space solar power, thanks to its active space program and limited available land for terrestrial solar. The country’s former president, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, told a group of space experts in Boston three years ago that India is developing an inexpensive reusable launch vehicle that could give “mankind the benefit of space solar-power stations in geostationary and other orbits.”
The new think-tank report maintains that a joint program aimed at establishing a commercially viable space solar industry by 2025 could be “the next major step in the Indo-US strategic partnership.” It would help “solve the linked problems of energy security, development and climate change” while giving India a constructive and peaceful direction for its rising space program.
If successful, the partnership would “position the US and Indian technical and industrial bases to enjoy a competitive edge in what is expected to be a significant and profitable market,” the report adds.
“It will also become one of the grandest and most ambitious humanitarian and environmentalist causes that will be sure to excite a generation as did the Apollo program that put a man on the moon.”
The two countries are longstanding partners when it comes to space science. The United States helped India launch its first generation of satellites in the 1970s, and India returned the favor by carrying NASA’s Moon Minerology Mapper aboard a moon-orbiting satellite last year.
A key stumbling block—aside from the Obama administration’s apparent disinterest in space solar—is India’s continuing refusal to sign the Missile Technology Control Regime, which seeks to curb the proliferation of missile technology. Unless it signs, the United States can’t share rocket technology with India.