First, let’s acknowledge the fact that we humans on Earth are using energy resources at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Knowing our nature, we will soon turn to space for energy solutions because sooner or later our planet will run out of things like oil and other finite resources. Space is the virtually untapped well of resources and energy that scientists are concocting plans to harvest.
When you look up at stars at night isn’t that an amenity? It is kind of strange to think of space like wetlands or a forest or any other environmental amenity, but it is. We are not always aware of space (like during the day), but at the same time the atmosphere and sun are what foster life on our planet. Everyone on Earth can look up at space and it’s in a way like air and water, it’s non-excludable. Yet only so few people can actually access it (those being astronauts). So, it is an amenity while at the same time being a commons good (rival and non-excludable).
So, this begs the question: Is the next big move in energy in space? The answer is yes and no, with a big question mark. Let’s dive into the astronomical world and analyze the different ideas our race has come up with.
First and most viable, is space solar power. We would essentially be using the same solar power technology that we use here on Earth but up in space. If we could harness the intense radiation of the sun and transport it back to us it would be the sustainable, clean energy humanity needs. Researcher Dan Ludois at the University of Wisconsin says “The sun is just a giant fusion reactor that powers our solar system after all” (Ludois).
Solar panels put on satellites that are already in orbit are very attainable. Some scientists are vying for lunar solar power energy, which would entail installing solar panels permanently on the moon. But this works out very well for us because we can put them on the side of the moon that permanently faces the sun. Imagine capturing sunlight 24/7! The other perk of harnessing solar power in space as opposed to on Earth is that the Sun’s radiation dissipates in Earth’s atmosphere so the full force of the sun’s energy is decreased by the time it reaches us.
I am sure you’re wondering how we get this energy back to Earth: simple, microwaves. Dan Ludois among many other scientists says we just have to turn the solar energy from the satellites or moon into microwaves that will return to Earth and then we just have to convert them back to electricity again. This is probably said much easier than it is done.
We actually use technology like this every day for phone calls, so it is very possible it will just take time. We need a lot of equipment (panels and the space craft just to get it up there and a lot of converters) both in orbit and on the surface of Earth. So the idea and the technology is super feasible not to mention the technology already exists. But economically, and from the current engineering standpoint, it is daunting.
It begs another question: Is it enough renewable sustainable energy? It’s the perfect substitute so how do we calculate how much of our Earthly needs can it fulfill? The logistics have to be calculated but otherwise it is the clean renewable and sustainable energy source we as a species have been looking for and desperately need.
The other most viable proposition is mining an isotope called Helium-3 on the moon and using it for nuclear power. Not only is He-3 cool because it’s from space, it’s cool because using He-3 in nuclear fusion reactors could power the Earth without giving off any pollution or hazardous waste or possible explosions (Horton). This is why if it were found on Earth we would be mining it right now. Helium-3 is perfect. An Estimated 25 tons could power the U.S. for a year and our little natural satellite, the moon, has more than 1 million tons! Mining on the moon is feasible because it’s an achievable distance (it only takes 3 days to get there). We reached deep space (beyond the edge of our solar system) in 2012 so it’s not the craziest idea, to start colonizing the moon and then move to further planets. Even Harrison Schmidt, a geologist for the Apollo missions, advocates for mining He-3.
This specific topic of energy is amazing yet daunting in terms of both environmental policy and economic mechanisms. Because we all know the private market doesn’t know what to do with commons goods (all of space in this case), so what will happen in regard to that? What will the private market do when we have lunar solar energy and He-3 nuclear power.
A Pigouvian tax could be a beneficial mechanism here for the He-3. To avoid future exhaustion and sky high prices of the new energy source, so we don’t end up with the situation we have now with oil. It is in vast quantities on the moon but once (if) that is used up we would have to mine on Jupiter.
I do fear revealed preference could be an issue hear. How can we put a value on these very foreign energy sources. What if we make He-3 the new fuel and it gets too expensive and scarce to harness but oil is already gone, and then the market goes haywire and we plunge into a recession. What I am saying is that we could be forced to use this isotope in the future and there is no reliable way to predict its affects on the economy.
The problem with these new fuel methods are that they are based on stated preference. Because after all space is an environmental amenity that can be exploited. We have seen in the past how nefarious humans can be with resources and how careless.
By Olivia Cobleigh
“Blue Sky Science: Could we harness energy in space for use on Earth?” Morgridge.org. Morgridge Institute of Research, https://morgridge.org/blue-sky/could-we-harness-energy-in-space-for-use-on-earth/
Hall, Laura. “Harnessing Power from the Moon.” Nasa.gov, 4 August 2017,
Horton, Jennifer. “Can we harness energy from outer space?” science.howstuffworks.com. https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/energy-from-space.htm
Horton, Jennifer. “Can we harness energy from outer space? One Small Step for Man, One Giant leap for Solar Power.” science.howstuffworks.com.
“Helium-3 Mining on the Lunar Surface.” Esa.int. http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Preparing_for_the_Future/Space_for_Earth/Energy/Helium-3_mining_on_the_lunar_surface
Sviatoslavsky, I. N. “Processes and Energy Costs for Mining Lunar Helium-3.” Nasa.gov. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890005477.pdf