November 11, 2010

For U.S.-India Cooperation, Space is the Next Frontier

As President Obama continues his tour through Asia this week, including Monday’s remarks in India, foreign policy-watchers have suggested a number of ways to improve and revitalize the India-U.S. relationship – including our very own CNAS colleagues. Importantly, President Obama himself emphasized the interplay between technology, new energy, and greater security during his address to the Indian Parliament. The final frontier – outer space – is one arena where some experts see potential collaboration between the United States and India. 

A November report issued by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in India, The Sky’s No Limit laid out the potential for U.S.-Indian efforts on space based solar power (SBSP).   If such technology can be developed, SBSP could be a remarkable future source of clean energy. The concept centers on placing satellites in geosynchronous orbit, capturing solar rays before their energy is diluted by the Earth’s atmosphere, turning this captured energy into microwave energy, and literally beaming it down to Earth-based receivers that could transform it into electricity. 

The IDSA report outlines, on page 67, four reasons why promoting India-U.S. cooperation on space based solar power makes sense at this juncture:

Firstly, India is the only major state where a Head of State has not only suggested space solar power as a goal for its space agency, but also expressed an interest in international cooperation. Second, as already noted above, there is considerable momentum in the Indo-US strategic partnership, with key components–space, energy, climate change, high tech, aviation, and dual use strategic technologies and defence cooperation–already in place with vibrant dialogue. Third, India’s need for power and development is acute, likely considerably more acute than other potential partners which makes it potentially a more motivated partner, and a linked effort also promises a tremendous ultimate market potential. Fourthly, the success of space solar power will depend partly on low-cost manufacture. In the time frame when space solar power will come of age, perhaps 15 years in the future, even as other manufacturing and labour markets age and face decline, India is projected to be in the midst of its demographic dividend, with the largest working age population of any country on earth.

Despite real concerns over cost and feasibility, as well as a noted lack of legal frameworks surrounding potential international cooperation, a report advising the U.S. Department of Defense in 2007 regarded India as a potential partner for future development of SBSP alongside Japan and the European Space Agency.

Beyond this, encouraging India to play a leading role in the development of space technology can arguably help better define and enshrine norms surrounding the use of outer space.  Potentially, such a leadership role could include encouraging stewardship of free access in outer space – minimizing orbital debris that could threaten the placement of future satellites and discouraging behaviors in space that contribute to orbital debris creation.  

For India’s part, its former president and space pioneer A.P.J. Kalam endorsed an initiative between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Washington-based National Space Society – a nonprofit organization dedicated to peaceful uses of outer space led by notable members such as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin –  to pursue advanced research on SBSP, and particularly to accomplish “the work necessary to field a system of large satellites that would collect solar energy and beam it safely to the surface.” The Kalam-National Space Society Energy Initiative also includes John Mankins, a former chief technologist at NASA. Optimistic estimates from Manknis indicate a “10-10-10 rule” for an initial prototype that could be the goal for a bilateral initiative telling Aviation Weekly:

Such a system would deliver 10 megawatts of power, cost less than $10 billion to build and launch, and be ready in less than 10 years. The system would consist of a large satellite to collect the Sun’s energy and convert it into microwaves, which would be beamed to an antenna on Earth that would collect the microwaves for conversion to electricity and transmission through the existing power grid.

While the results of any cooperation are at least decades off, these efforts show that increased concerns over energy – a source of potential conflict – also provide opportunities for revitalized cooperation. Finding ways to combine resources and niche technological advantages internationally can help distribute the costs, risks, and potential benefits of developing and proving the potential of emerging technologies.

Jessica Glover is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security. She holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs.