US Space Force Launching 37B Shuttle and Test Space Based Solar

The U.S. Space Force, is scheduled to launch the sixth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) on May 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.

Patrick Tucker reports:
A 1-square-foot solar panel will try to convert solar radiation to regular DC current and then into microwaves and sent via cable to a box to measure, a first in space, said Paul Jaffe, an electronics engineer at the Naval Research Lab. The experiment could pave the way for much larger solar arrays that might someday generate enough power to send useful amounts to the ground (if funding continues.)

The mission will deploy the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several experiments on orbit. The FalconSat-8 is an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA to operate.

Two National Aeronautics and Space Administration experiments will be included to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food.

The X-37B program completed its fifth mission in October 2019, landing after 780 days on orbit, extending the total number of days spent on orbit for the spacecraft to 2,865 – or seven years and 10 months.

SOURCES- Defense One, Space Force
Written By Brian Wang,

39 thoughts on “US Space Force Launching 37B Shuttle and Test Space Based Solar”

  1. you know what makes a good cover story? truth.

    they are doing that, but ask yourself this, does it take up the entire cargo bay?

  2. My question about Mars is what the hell does a viable product mean? I know you can sell electricity!

  3. Sort of the opposite of chicken/egg, too much egg. On the other hand, non-ISRU and planetary plans cannot scale, so that is really a problem!

  4. There is some conflict between the array orientation for solar energy, and the array orientation for beam pointing. The separate transmission array solves it one way, reflecting the light solves it another, less compact, but maybe cheaper way.

    I like the idea of feeding solar panels in space with reflected light, because you can make the thin film mirror both concentrating AND selective. Just direct to the panels the photons it can efficiently convert, and you reduce the need for radiators substantially.

  5. “could work for small military base, as a start.”

    If the small military base only needed 5 minutes of power every 90 minutes. The unavoidable problem with LEO satellites is that they can only be seen from a given point a small fraction of the time. You’d need a whole string of them to provide reliable power.

  6. The X37B has turned out to be a lot more successful than the Spaceshuttle project.
    They should have gone with Dynasoar back in WW1 (or whenever, I don’t know, before I was born…)

  7. I’ve seen too many projects optimise for huge volumes when they really should have been doing boutique scale hand assembly to work all the bugs out and get to market faster with an alpha release, beta release, version 1.0 etc.
    Instead they burned through their cash building systems that only made sense with a scale of <little finger in corner of mouth> …millions…</finger> which they never reached because they ran out of runway and/or needed to completely redesign the system once they got some market experience.

  8. If you are building them for power production, then the people voting for and paying for the system are the same people it will be aimed at.

    They will be a lot more likely to approve if you can show that the physical size is 100 times too small to be a weapon.

    Arguments about “the software won’t allow it, which will be secret, and you won’t have access, and it can be updated any time, and even if you could read it you wouldn’t understand.” won’t convince anyone. Not after literally decades of everything from “secure” data breeches to the 727Max debacle.

    Arguments that the electronics will be hardwired to only send it down to a pilot beam will be little better. You come up with a 30 second sound bite that will convince someone who remembers the Toyota and Audi unintended acceleration issues that this time your engineers really checked things properly. You provide a proof that will satisfy people who have seen mobile phones recalled because they sometimes blow up and set people’s pants on fire.

    And remember that some of these people think vaccines retroactively cause birth defects.

    No, size is something that people can look at, at least on TV, and see that it is much, much smaller than what independent experts tell them could possibly be dangerous. There’ll still be controversy but it should be manageable.

    If you are building it explicitly as a weapon. That would be a “weapon of mass destruction” in space. Which is banned by international treaty.

  9. This may be trying to do in-space confirmation of the microwave signal output from an integrated Z fold solar array/radiator/microwave transmitter design Paul Jaffe has been working on for the last decade, to push up the TRL of sandwich panel SPS systems. Taking the raw microwave emitter output from the sandwich panel via cable for analysis has some merit, though that won’ help with checking functionality as part of a phased array.

    Instead of a single large flat solar array, you have these steps with a sandwich panel of PV and microwave emitters that are controlled as a phased array. These step panels get separated from each other by orthogonal radiator plates. From the ground it looks like one big antenna. There seems to still be some dependence on an external primary mirror for sun tracking in the more common designs, which usually assume a level of solar concentration via the primary mirror (such as the old NASA butterfly mirror configs).

    A more extreme example of the stepping design would be HESPeruS (which looks like a venetian blind stack), and CASSIOPeiA (which like those spiral wind spinners)

  10. Good article! I also just call it *cash flow* at its base, or ideas that lead to one another without inherent contradiction or dead ends. And just the solar panels for the mass driver and other lunar activities will be a pretty good starting launched project, obviously not made with mass driven material. My concern is that the Space Grand Problem is largely unknown. The very article: “Musk’s ultimate vision is a planet powered entirely by the sun and eventually multi-planet habitation”. But his solar collectors are on the Earth, and all the multi planets are planets. If people are not aware of what Space Solar can do, and that includes funding the cash flow of opening O’Neill Space, as O’Neill proposed so long ago, “Constantly communicate the vision of the Grand Problem”

  11. It is the physics that limits it. Like using cell phone sig to overheat heads so they explode. No danger.

  12. Yes, but I want to stomp down *death ray* thoughts as they are historically overblown. CUTIE, if I remember. The starting point of the calculation is actually what the political tolerance is for micros at the surface, and near overhead. Criswell designs for 20% solar, but sez can work at 2% solar. If it is that weak by design, the effort to make it even potentially dangerous would be easily seen and difficult. Pilot beams are for ease of billing and aiming calculations, but should not be thought of as a safeguard, or some will imagine hacking them, and ohh noo! but it actually it would not matter as for making a weapon.

  13. Hadn’t thought of that, it makes sense. Instead of hauling around a nuclear power plant or solar panels, instead beam the power to the ship.

  14. Why limit its ability to be used as a weapon? These are military experiments after all, and as powerful as it would be it would still pale in comparison to a MIRV. Seems kinda PC to me. A weapon is a weapon whether it is a nuke, bullet or sharp rock. Dead is dead no matter how you got that way. There are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people.

  15. I understand what you’re saying. At any kind of scale ISRU makes SPS an even better economic deal, I’m just saying with low enough launch costs you can make a go of them without establishing mines on the Moon first.

    There’s a lot to be said for lowering the initial investment. You start with the minimum viable product, and then start adding improvements as you have cash flow to pay for them.

    Don’t tell people they need Moon mines and O’Neill colonies to have SPS. You’ll never get the SPS. Tell them they need SPS, and bring in the Moon mines and O’Neill colonies as later improvements.

  16. Increasing the size of the antenna array reduces the potential spot size at the other end of the transmission, which, assuming constant power, increases the power density. If you made the antenna as large as the solar panel array for a 10GW SPS, you’d have an orbital death ray as a result.

    That’s why the proposals generally limit the antenna array size, and mandate a requirement for a pilot beam, so as to reduce the weapons potential.

  17. I think also the SF is interested in using beamed energy to craft. They want to see the work.

    Not having to carry tons of solar panels on something may be handy at some point.

  18. “But, seriously, Musk is bringing the cost of access to space down enough that even SPS launched from Earth without utilization of space resources stand a chance of being economical.” I hate this argument! I fought it in the NSSO effort. The argument for ISRU is independent of launch costs! Cheap launch makes ISRU cheap too, so why not say that we should abandon direct product launch and start ISRU first, as the *big goal* is now in sight and possible? The *big goal*, O’Neill Space, means we don’t have the stuff to launch, the Earth being so tiny. Why dilly-dally?

  19. I certainly am not into LEO Solar Power! But that was NSSO focus, could work for small military base, as a start. Many interesting considerations! Moon -> “reduced duty cycle” is actually two things, the day/nite illumination of the Moon, which is only solved by more stuff on the Moon (not covered-lunar eclipse!), and the Moon-day/Moon-nite cycle of the Moon only being “up” (for direct beaming) about a third of the time. Here, it gets tricky. Necessity is the . . ., so having redirectors near the rectennae for this turns out to support Earth to Earth power balancing too, even before the rest of the project is started. Load variation is as bad as power intermittency. It may be a disadvantage (or no advantage, actually) to have sats tied to “designated targets”. Let AI figure this stuff out!

  20. I have seen designs that have the panels on the back of the radar, but don’t know if that is just a short cable or true “integrated microwave generation”. The panels need booster mirrors or they are much larger than the radar. “general objection here is that a phased array of the size suitable for a reasonable power sat would then be capable of relatively small spot sizes on Earth, with weapons grade power densities” is not self-consistent. If the plan is for large rectennae with ~20% solar insolation power density, then that is the best the radars will be able to do! By the basic Physics, BTW. “proper distribution of a reference phase.” I think one of the wonders of phased array is that the pilot beam can get to the radar thru many paths, and it will send the power back thru them all!

  21. Like I said, LEO makes some sense for demonstration projects. The problem is the duty cycle available in LEO is horrible.

    That’s why Musk is having to launch hundreds of satellites for his internet service: Any given satellite will only be visible from a given point on Earth for a tiny portion of the day.

    For space solar power, it’s not just the visibility limitation, in LEO you’re in the Earth’s shadow almost as much of the time as though you were on the surface. So, LEO powersats can’t really provide nighttime power without expensive relay techniques.

    Going to the Moon, you get the advantage of not having to launch the material from the surface to utilize it, but now you’re back to reduced duty cycle, because the Moon has a day/night cycle, and in order to provide continuous power to any location on Earth, you need relays, presumably in geosynch orbit.

    So, aside from mere demonstration projects, geosynch is the place to go: Near 100% availability from your designated targets. The downside is just the minimum practical scale, you really need at least a 1 square kilometer antenna. But, seriously, Musk is bringing the cost of access to space down enough that even SPS launched from Earth without utilization of space resources stand a chance of being economical.

  22. What would make sense is to come up with a solar panel with integrated microwave generation, that could function as part of a phased array as large as the solar panel. That would seriously simplify powersat construction, and allow for representative testing even on a small scale. All you’d really need is a frame to hold them, and proper distribution of a reference phase.

    The general objection here is that a phased array of the size suitable for a reasonable power sat would then be capable of relatively small spot sizes on Earth, with weapons grade power densities. It would be, in effect, an orbital death ray. The usual proposals limit the transmitting antenna size as a way of limiting possible intensity and minimum spot size on Earth, to prevent weapons applications.

    I still like the idea, though.

  23. NSSO was definite about starting LEO, launched from Earth, for small targets, using small radar apertures. Initial talk of using Moon for ISRU or, heaven forbid, the sat, was discouraged at first. But then was regarded as quite interesting!

  24. You left out my favorite: A statite array to make humanity a K-2 civilization.

    I don’t know that LEO satellites make any sense at all for solar power, (Except as an experimental demonstration) due to the atrocious duty cycle unless you launch many of them, and the continually changing angles. I think geosynch is probably the best bet for first application.

  25. They (NSSO) were ready to go over ten years ago. Think of this as similar to Stuart Brand giving a grant to a college for the O’Neill conference, forcing it to be “official”, worth far more than the grant itself. Now we have an *official* Space Solar Power effort!

  26. If I understand correctly what they say they are doing, they don’t even need to do that in space to determine that it works.

  27. The only way you could convince anyone to let you launch a 1 square foot solar panel into space to see how much power it can generate, is if it was a radically new type of solar panel. Otherwise you’d just get the data from one of the 50 000 other solar panels already operating in space.
    Presumably it should also be a solar panel technology that would arguably function differently in space than in the lab.
    I don’t know what that would be, maybe something that goes directly from light to microwaves, notwithstanding the statement that DC is an intermediate stage.

  28. Maybe it’s too early after breakfast for me: why is it obviously not what they are really up to?

  29. I would guess the micros would be directly made from dc, without an intermediate step. They produce dc at the rectenna, which rectifies as it absorbs.

  30. Don’t solar panels always generate regular DC power and if you want to turn it into microwaves you convert it into high frequency AC?

  31. “I think we have found the killer application that we have been looking for to tie everything together that we’re doing in space,” Air Force Col. Michael V. “Coyote” Smith, who initiated the study for the Defense Department’s National Security Space Office, told on Thursday.
    “If space solar power takes off, everything that came before — Apollo, the shuttle, the station, all together — will look like a college science project,” Miller told “It’s that much bigger.”

  32. Obviously, this in not really what they are up to. This is a cover. Not saying they are doing anything sinister. They just are not saying what they are really doing. I really don’t see the point either. They can just say it is classified and that is that.

  33. It becomes more understandable once you realize that what they’re talking about is a glorified science fair project.

  34. “A 1-square-foot solar panel will try to convert solar radiation to regular DC current and then into microwaves”
    “Sending direct electric current to earth via an antenna would require a device too large to be practical. But it is possible to send microwaves to earth from space with an antenna that could actually make it to space. ” The DC would have to be a cable, it would seem, too large. The experiment is about well understood micro transmission. But comm sats have been doing exactly this forever, almost. We just miss most of the energy.

  35. There are four possible Space Solar designs. Launched LEO sats with small, expensive amounts sent to military or emergency loads, the NSSO plan, a start! GEO Solar, O’Neill and Glaser, ISRU. L5 sat and Criswell Lunar Solar Power are similar, in being more distant, most clearly ISRU. We need 20-200 tWe to make a difference in global heating. Why not?

  36. I’m at a bit of a loss as to what this experiment is supposed to demonstrate; Conversion of sunlight into DC is standard practice, even in space. And one square foot is high school science project power levels.

    But, “The FalconSat-8 is an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA to operate.”

    So, it’s not really a practical experiment, as such, it’s just one of those educational projects that manage to make it into space.

    The article says, “Sending direct electric current to earth via an antenna would require a device too large to be practical.”, so I’m inclined to suspect any technical details.

  37. I wonder what the military version of Starship will be like… Most likely bristling with all those SDI-era weapons that never flew. It will be cool as hell.

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