Some questions to Patrick Collins, leader of SPS 2000

by Adriano Autino


Dr. Patrick Collins is the Director of the SPS 2000, a demonstrator Project, sponsorized by the Japanese Government and by NASDA (the Japanese Space Agency), aimed to collect solar energy by a satellite and to send the energy to the Earth ground, by means of a microwave beam. Centered on the SPS theme, the interview covered several other aspects, regarding the relationship between Space Activities and Society. The part of this interview specifically regairding the SPS was used to build an article wich will appear on "Le Scienze" (italian edition of Scientific American), issue of december.


Q. I'd like to explore the argument of the SPS (Solar Power from Space) because I think that it could be a trait d’union between the space research and the commercial space activities. In this Congress the leit motiv was unfortunately the one of the difficulties to find private investors for the space enterprise. It would be interesting if we could propose, to an investor, an investement which can have a return, maybe in ten years, but not an ipotetical one. The themes whose can really open this way are not so many. One is surely the Energy from Space, another one the Reusable and/or Low Cost Launchers, a third could be the one to start using the space resources (Moon and Asteroids). The SPS could be the nearest and most concrete. How do you see this problems, and wath is your approach to them?

A. I'm an economist, my background is economic. Since 20 years I'm looking for space project which can become business. The television satellites, for instance, are an existing business. The movable telephons market, as well, is increasing. For me the problem is that these segments doesn't require the presence of people in the space, thus they don't generate a big demand for reusable launchers, nor for launchers tout-court. The market is stable, anyway, at 4 billion US$ per year. Each launch is cheeper, thus the market increases as number of launchs, but not economically. 4 billions are nothing, if compared to the annual figures of Ford (50 billions US$ per year), it is surely not attractive for private investors. Speaking about Reusable Launchers, we can observe that the suppliers of spendable rockets strongly fight against the reusable launchers: if a supplier sells actually 50 rockets per year, he will sell only one reusable vehicle per year, thus his market will undergo a real collapse. Therefore, in order that the innovation was sustainable, it is needed a very much bigger market, in very high expansion: 2000 launchs the first year (instead of 50), 5000 the second year, and so on. The Telecommunication segment doesn't need 10.000 satellites, so it will not require such a remarkable launchs progression.

Q. We should look at the space activities not only from an economic point of view, but also paying attention to what can help the advance of Man into the space, i.e. the Astronautics. As you say, the segment of the communication satellites doesn't need man's activities in orbit. It may thus has been useful to start the market, but sirely it is no more progressive.

A. Another sector I'm working to in Japan, showing major progressive characteritics, is the Space Tourism. Many market researches are going on also in USA, Canda and Germany. Space Tourism is very popular, especially among the young people. A lot of people hopes to have the chance to go into the space: 80% of the youngs declared they want to go into the space. This is not so much surprising, for me: all the astronauts spoke about the wonder of the zero gravity, and were enthusiast about watching our planet from outside.

Q. There's a Company, recently born in USA, which is booking suborbital trips for, maybe, 10.000 US$ each ticket. Many astronauts declared that to see the world from the orbit lead them to think in another way, about Humanity and about the fragility of our world.

A. The Tourism will become a big business and will grow up very much… I think it can become, for everybody, something like the "Trip to Mecca" of the Muslims: at least once in the life, everybody will make a trip in the space. At least a 20% of the people will wish to go, for sure.

Q. To come back to the Energy from Satellite, how far have you got with the project? In your report, this morning, you spoke about 8 equatorial countries, associated to the project…

A. We are in the design phase. It is a big satellite, 300 meters tall, with a rather simple technology. It will be fully built in Japan, and it will cost few hundred billions US$ (normal cost of a satellite). My colleagues and I received the budget to build up the ground stations, and it is not far away the operative decision about the construction of the satellite. In order the executive project can start, we only wait for the finalizing of the users consortium. The participating Countries are, nowaday: Papua Nuova Guinea, Indonesia, Ecuador, Colombia, Malaysia, Brasile, Tanzania, Maldive.

Q. How many people are so far involved in the project?

A. Totally, even if not full time, nearly hundred people, researchers belonging to different Universities and Research Centers. At international level we have an excellent feedback: many equatorial Countries engaged themselves, enthusiastically, to supply free of charge the ground for the receiving stations and rectennas. We ought to considere that the technology for the rectenna is rather simple, and doesn't need very specifical skills: thus many jobs can be created, in the Countries which participate to the project. One of the major problems, instead, is that each Country holds different offices, usually separated and independent, and it is not clear who should be our interface: Energy, Environment, or the Technology Agencies, the Foreign Office, or the Minister of the Telecommunications. Each time we have to explain, in a different language, the project and its requirements to different interlocutors.

Q. Could you give us an idea of the time scheduling of the project?

A. The name is SPS2000, but I'm afraid it will take another couple of years before we're ready. Provided that the Japanese public opinion keep on thinking that this is a good project.

Q. As far as the politic-economic aspects of the project are concerned, did you take in account the idea to run some untraditional path? I mean, beside the dialogue with the government, do you think it could be possible, to make a society, to list it to the Stock Exchange, to sell the actions, to address directly to the people?

A. Well, we are speaking about a demonstrator, able to generate a modest quantity of energy, and it cannot be targeted to generate profits. The generated power is only 10 Watt/m2, i.e. a 2 or 5% of the power developed by a commercial system (from 200 to 500 Watt/m2).

Q. Is there any danger for people or animals in the middle of the beam?

A. Absolutely not: 10 W/m2 are not dangerous at all! The Sun light is almost 1000 W/m2. Even the center of the beam is absolutely safe, according the international standards.

Q. Could the power generated by the demonstrator, though minimal, show anyway its utility for the served regions, being they poor areas, where the electrical power is totally lacking?

A. Sure. A rectenna of a squred km surface can generate 10 Mwatt. The beam will have a radius of one km. The rectenna isn't parabolic, but a wire mesh, that doesn't require a specialistic maintenance.

Q. It will be surely more interesting, even from the point of you of the private investors, when the SPS will start to serve more populated zones…

A. For a demonstrator we must use a low orbit, and the only one possible, to assure the continuity of the service, is the equatorial orbit: there we will put the SPS2000, at 1100 km of altitude. The geostationary orbit of the telecommunication satellites, at 36000 km, will be more practical for the future commercial systems. Such an orbit will require a transmitting antenna bigger and more powerful, in order to narrow the beam, avoiding dispersion effects.

Q. Prof. Rubbia, some years ago, wrote that none energy technology is without environmental costs: the ground photovoltaci, if massively used, will cover enormous ground surfaces with black panels, and this will get completely desert and unusable big extensions of ground.

A. In order to compare the space solar energy with the earthly one, we should considere, first of all, that an earthly system needs a very much larger extension of ground. Then, the energy needs to be stocked in big quantities, due to the cloudy days. At the end if we want, for instance, to suply energy to Europe, and the plants are in Africa, we need very expensive transfer structures. The space solar, instead, can convey the energy everywhere, on Earth. In areas where large extensions of ground are available near the users, the earthly technology can be more convenient, but this is surely not the case of the most populated areas, which can nevertheless have the relatively modest surface needed for the rectennas.

Q. If we only think to the economical costs the fossil fuel appears still the most convenient. If we insert other variables, the environmental ones first of all, the assesment will change.

A. China, for instance, started a path of industrialization. Both in China and in Indonesia, the demand of electrical power is foreseen to grow up of many hundreds of percent points, during the next decades. If nobody will supply low cost energy to these Countries, they will use the coal, and we can imagine the consequence on the greenhouse effect. But China and Indonesia, having very large ground extension and low cost manpower, will take enormous advantages from the solar energy from space.


To really start a space economy, we dare say as a conclusion, Man should therefore proceed, without hesitations, and move part of his activities into the space, starting with the activities which can better help the share of the most progressive sectors of the earthly productive society: SPS is one of the leading.

The compared data of the Japanese engagement in the space

Volume of the Japanese annual space expense (NASDA) 2 billions US$
Volume of the Japanese annual total Economy 3 trillions US$
World annual total space expense 25 billions US$
NASA's annual space expense 14 billions US$
European annual space expense 6 billions US$
ESA's annual space expense (part of the european expense) 3 billions US$
Rest of the world annual space expense (Russia, Brasile, India, Israele...) 3 billions US$

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