India’s Energy Security Through Space By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Originally published in the PINNACLE, The ARTRAC Journal, Vol 19, 2020, Pages 165-179
The formatting of the article is not great but the content is! 

The Fundamentals


Population. By 2100 the global population will be around 10 billion.  Compared to the present population, it is approximately 40 to 50% greater[1] (see fig 1). Indian population is set to rise from 1.3 billion to a peak of  1.6 billion between 2050-75 [2](see fig 2). That is about a 20% increase. 



                              Figure 1 World Population By Region


                                       Figure 2 Indian Population


Energy and Growth. Energy is fundamental for growth, and progress. If population grows as estimated, global energy requirement is estimated to double by 2100. If the population growth is conservative, energy requirements will still grow  by 25-30%[3] (see fig 3).  However the availability of energy and other resources will start decreasing. It is estimated that the availability of the current energy mix will peak round 2035[4]. Thereafter availability of fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro power energy  will decrease due to resource depletion. Humanity must start looking at alternate sources of energy. 



                            Figure 3 World Energy Consumption


                                   Figure 4 World Energy Consumption Mix


India’s Energy Security Risk. India’s population will require large amounts of energy. Estimates indicate that, our energy requirement will double in the next 10 years if the growth rate is sustained at 8%[5] ( see fig 5) . For an energy deficient nation this is a big problem. Beyond 2030 the requirements will exponentially grow. This  is a major problem in a globally dwindling energy scenario. Even if energy is to be imported it might not be available. Hence India’s future energy security is at risk.   


                          Figure 5 India’s Energy Requirement0

Climate Change and Global Warming Our continued dependence  on fossil fuel energy will only contribute to accelerated global warming. The adverse effects of  global warming will kick in. These include,  rising sea levels and reduced land[6], water scarcity[7], hurricanes , floods , storms, drought, change in crop patterns and eco systems. Most importantly climate change and growth induced pollution will result in widespread diseases and health issues.  

India’s Energy Outlook. India must look for clean and sustainable energy which in the long term. We also need to move towards self-sufficiency. Clean energy sources are only three nuclear, wind and solar. In nuclear energy, India is lucky that it has abundant quantities of Thorium. It is a leader in Thorium technology. Hopefully,  the safe and clean Thorium cycle will meet a substantial portion of our energy requirement[8]. However we must look beyond the Thorium cycle.  Wind  based energy[9] will meet requirements partly.  Solar  energy also has severe limitations within the earth’s atmosphere.  The answer is clearly to look up to the heavens and seek energy in space. 

Space Dependent Energy Options 

Space offers two direct and some  indirect routes to harness energy. The first option is space based solar power. The second option is mining Helium-3 from space and use it in a nuclear fusion process to produce energy. The next option is to mine space for water. Water , in turn it will enable and sustain other direct options in space.  Another indirect option is to mine Asteroids / Moon / Mars surface  for rare earths which enable better/ superconductivity so the energy consumption is reduced.


Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) 

Basics. Space-based solar power involves generating energy by placing solar power satellites in orbit[10]. These would receive sunlight directly and wirelessly transmit their collected energy to a receiving station on the ground. In  1973, Peter Glaser, an American engineer envisaged solar power satellites with microwave antennas that would transmit power to large Earth-based receivers called ‘rectennas’. Largely there are two approaches in space based solar power generation. 

The Geostationary OptionIt involves placing microwave transmitting satellites in a geostationary orbit, about 20,000 miles above Earth[11]. These massive microwave-transmitting satellites will have solar reflectors spanning up to 2 miles (see fig 6) . They will be capable of powering a metropolis. Wireless  power transmission frequencies will not be harmful.  Transmission intensity will be barely stronger than the sun at noon. Solar satellites would be immune to cloud cover, changing seasons, and atmospheric haze. Multiple launches are envisaged to assemble and operate the system. Hence initial costs will be high. The receiving rectenna on earth will be huge (about 3 miles diameter). 

              Figure 6 Geostationary Microwave Transmitting Satellite

The Laser Option. This approach involves  satellites transmitting lasers (see fig 7). These satellites will be in  low Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of about 250 miles. Laser  satellites will be much lighter and cheaper to launch, assemble and operate. This arrangement has lower capacities per satellite. Hence a constellation will have to be operated. A self-assembling satellite can be launched in a single rocket. The laser transmitter will only be about 6 feet in diameter. It is planned to employ a diode-pumped alkali laser [12] which is still under development. There are serious challenges in this mode due to military concerns of using high-powered lasers in space. 


       Figure 7 Laser Power Transmitting Satellites

Realism. Most technologies required to build solar power satellites already exist. Advances in harnessing solar technologies are continuing. Transmission of energy over long distances using either microwaves or lasers is proven. However Space is a tough and  high risk area in which the unknowns are too many. While these options are within realm of reality, there is lot of caution as well.    

Helium-3 – Deuterium Fusion Energy

Helium Basics.  Helium is the second-most common element universally but is scarce on earth. Helium is needed in applications from  space exploration to quantum computing.  Helium is a non-renewable resource[13]. USA, Algeria,  Qatar and Tanzania are the only producers of Helium[14].

Helium-3. The most common isotope is  Helium-4. It has two neutrons and two protons. It is stable. However the interesting isotope is Helium-3.  It is non-radioactive and  has two neutrons and one proton[15]. It can be made artificially but  it is a very rare element. In total, 0.01 metric tons of Helium-3 exist on Earth. Helium-3 has rare and valuable properties. Helium-3 is however most sought after for fusion[16]. It will most likely solve our coming energy crisis.


Nuclear Plants Basics. Nuclear power plants use a nuclear fission reaction ( see fig 8) to produce heat. This is used to turn water into steam which drives a turbine to produce electricity[17] (see fig 9). Current nuclear power plants have fission reactors in which uranium nuclei are split apart[18]. This releases energy but also  radioactivity. The spent nuclear fuel has radioactive waste which is hazardous. It needs to be stored safely[19].


                                            Figure 8 Fission Reaction


                       Figure 9 Nuclear Power Station


Fusion. Fusion occurs when the nuclei of two atoms are forcibly driven together to fuse with each other. In the process of fusing tremendous energy is released.  Fusion reactions generate huge amounts of energy as compared to fission. If the reaction can be controlled  it has the potential to generate unlimited electricity with virtually zero carbon emissions. The normal fusion is of two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium. The product of the reaction is a helium ion and a fast-moving neutron[20]. Most fusion research to date has followed this path. This is the fundamental theory of a fusion or a hydrogen bomb.


                             Figure 10 Fusion Reaction


Helium-3 – Deuterium Fusion. Nuclear fusion is complex. It is difficult to capture what are known as “fast” neutrons that are released. These are uncontrollable and lead to energy waste. That is why hydrogen bombs are more devastating than normal atom bombs. Helium-3  has one neutron which is slow moving and controllable. The fusion of  Helium-3 and Deuterium can fuel fusion reactors. Their  fusion creates normal Helium and a proton, which wastes less energy and is easier to contain (see fig 11). Nuclear fusion reactors using Helium-3 could therefore provide a highly efficient form of nuclear power with virtually no waste and no radiation[21]. It could be a perfect fuel for fusion. However the reality check[22]on Helium-3 fusion is that it is under development. There  are large fusion projects like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) that have made considerable progress [23]Optimistically fusion reactors  could go commercial in about five-ten  years. It brings us to the next problem. Where are Helium-3 and Deuterium available? In space!


                       Figure 11 Helium-3 Deuterium fusion


Helium 3 In Space It is estimated that there are one million  tons of Helium-3[24]embedded in the   top surface layer of Moon soil due to constant bombardment by solar winds. Its concentration is  however very low.  Enormous quantities of Moon soil has to be processed by heating it at 600 °C (1,112 F). A permanent Moon base must be established and industrial-scale Helium-3 production has to be set up. It is estimated that  25 tonnes of Helium-3 (fully-loaded Space Shuttle cargo bay) could power the United States for a year.[25]In comparison India’s annual energy requirement  will be about 50% of this. The actual requirement could further reduce after discounting Earth based solar, wind and nuclear capacities. 


Deuterium. The other material needed for  fusion reactors is Deuterium. Currently Deuterium, occurs as 166 out of every million hydrogen atoms on Earth. However in Mars it comprises 833 out of every million Hydrogen atoms on Mars. Deuterium is very expensive in today’s pre-fusion economy. Once fusion reactors go into widespread use, Deuterium availability will go down and prices will increase. Hence humanity will have to go to Mars for Deuterium. However to run a Mars settlement , water electrolysis is mandatory.  As a by-product adequate deuterium is expected to be produced.


Space Travel Volumes. Overall to ensure future energy security we need to go repeatedly to moon, from there go to Mars, set up production facilities, run them continuously, stay in moon and/or mars, use rare earth materials which consumes less energy and send back raw material to Earth. Hence there will be constant space travel to and from moon, space and deep outer space. Further,  we need to look at three issues. Using Hydrogen to propel space travel. Using Hydrogen based fuel cells for storing energy. Lastly obtain rare earth and other precious metals from space. We will look at each of them in turn.


The Hydrogen System For Space

Hydrogen Propellants. Hydrogen is the  fundamental energy source for  space exploration and survival. It is used for two purposes- Propelling spacecraft and storing power. Liquid  Hydrogen in combination with liquid Oxygen, yields the highest efficiency in relation to the amount of propellant consumed, of any known rocket propellant (30%-40% higher than most other rocket fuels.)[26] [27]. As a result liquid Hydrogen is the signature fuel of most  space programs. When  Hydrogen is burned the output is  not  CO2 but  H2O (water). This water can be reused.  However the process is complex. The complexity of Hydrogen lies in its management, of liquefying it and storing it safely in space or earth[28].

Hydrogen Fuel Cells (For Space).  Producing and storing power in space is done in fuel cells. A fuel cell combines hydrogen  with oxygen to produce electrical power (see fig 12). It  works similar to batteries, but  never runs down or needs to be recharged.  It has a cathode and an anode separated by an electrolyte. In a fuel cell, the electrode is not consumed, and the cell can produce electricity as long as hydrogen and oxidizer levels are maintained. With hydrogen as fuel, heat and water are the only by-products. NASA is developing three types of fuel cells: proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs), regenerative fuel cell (RFC) systems, and solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). 

Text Box: Figure 12 Fuel Cell


Water – The Oil of SpaceWater is the oil of space. In simple terms  water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis in space. Studies show that it is possible to produce hydrogen (for fuel) and oxygen (for life) from water alone using a  semiconductor material and sunlight (or star light) in zero gravity[29] [30]Thereafter Hydrogen and Oxygen can be combined to produce electricity or propellants. Oxygen produced by water electrolysis can be  used for breathing  by astronauts. Hence availability of water in space is a fundamental requirement. In space,  water is available on the lunar surface, mars and on asteroids in areas which are permanently in darkness. The  biggest and most immediate application for lunar water is making rocket propellant. Right now, rockets leaving Earth carry all the propellant they need for two way travel. However by leveraging lunar ice, rockets could potentially refuel once they get to Moon/space. From there they can hop  to reach distant locations for further travel. Water from the Moon could be mined, broken apart into rocket fuel, and transported to a propellant depot either near the Moon or in low Earth orbit. A space vehicle could simply dock with a depot and refuel for longer trips to space without entering the Earth’s atmosphere[31]. Then, rockets wouldn’t have to be so big to house all their propellant. That space can be used for storage and transportation. Sustained space travel then becomes a real possibility


Asteroid Mining

Asteroids are chunks of space debris in orbit around the Sun. Most asteroids are located in the Main Asteroid Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. However there are three groups of ‘near-Earth’ asteroids called the Atens, the Amors and the Apollos (see fig 13). These contain about 9,000 asteroids, with nearly 1,000 more than a kilometre in size. Due to their relative proximity to our planet, some 1,500 near-Earth asteroids could be mined. 

Figure 13 Asteroid Belts

Asteroids are made of many different materials, carbon compounds, iron, magnesium,  silicates, nickel and some platinum group metals. A single, platinum-rich, 500 metre wide asteroid could  contain up to 174 times the yearly world output of this highly precious material, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals. Very importantly, the search is also for rare earth metals. These metals are in short supply in earth. If brought in from space, rare earth metals will enable superconductive materials and computer chips being built. These in turn will help in reducing energy consumption. The water in asteroids will be just as valuable as metal deposits. Similarly  rare earths could be mined in Moon and Mars.  Even basic asteroid rock may prove a valuable building material for a space colony, as it could shield humans from deadly radiation.[32] [33] [34] Mining for rare earth and precious metals will be first attempted on Moon and also Mars (later)


International Capability Analysis


Not all countries can attempt to explore/use space for energy security. It is only a few countries which have capability to do so. The international space capability is outlined below:- 


Countries with advanced space programs are USA China Russia Japan United Kingdom India Canada Germany France, Luxembourg and Israel. 


Missions to the Moon have been conducted by  the Soviet Union, USA , Japan, the European Space Agency, China, India, Luxembourg, and Israel.


Amongst all these countries. USA, China and the former Soviet Union are the only nations to perform a soft landing on the lunar surface. India and Israel have had failed attempts.


There have been eight successful Mars landings by USA. [35]  The last Mars landing was done by USA in 2018. The only other country to land a spacecraft on Mars was the Soviet Union in 1971 and 1973. USA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and India have successfully sent spacecraft to enter Mars’ orbit[36].


Countries/ Space agencies which are really aiming to explore space for energy security are USA, ESA, China and India. China has been very aggressive about it. Russia has the capability to do so but has not showed great interest. There are a lot of private entrepreneurs who are gearing up to enter the space based energy scene.


Countries which harness energy from space and achieve energy dominance will be the future global powers in a depleting energy scenario. 


Indian Space and Energy Capability


India has  one of the most advanced space programs. India’s forays into deep space are aimed at addressing the energy security of the nation. ISRO has demonstrated its capabilities conclusively . India has launched  the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)[37] for putting satellites into polar orbit, the Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle (GSLV)[38] for placing satellites into Geostationary Orbit, and a heavy-lift version of the GSLV called the GSLV Mark III. Those rockets launched communication satellites, Earth-observation satellites and both missions to the Moon and Mars. ISRO plans to put astronauts into orbit in 2022[39].


Chandrayaan-1 India’s first mission to Moon, was launched successfully on 22 October 2008[40]. It orbited the Moon at a height of 100 km for chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon. After successfully  completing major mission objectives, the orbit was raised to 200 km during May 2009. The satellite made more than 3400 orbits around the moon during its life.  This mission first confirmed presence of water on the lunar surface. 


Mars Orbiter Mission India’s Mars mission was launched on 05 November 2013[41]. It entered the Mars orbit on 24 September 2014. It completed its planned 160-day mission in March 2015. It explored and observed Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft continues to operate, mapping the planet and measuring radiation. India is planning a second mars mission in 2022.

Chandrayan-2  India’s second mission to Moon, was launched successfully on 22 July 2019. An attempt was made to do a soft landing on moon. It failed. However the space segment continues to orbit the moon and has finished one year in space. The soft lander was to study lunar topography, seismography, mineral identification and distribution, surface chemical composition, thermo-physical characteristics of top soil and composition of the tenuous lunar atmosphere[42]. Simply put it was a search for water on moon. The soft landing was attempted in the dark side of the Moon where water was detected earlier by Chandrayan 1. 


Gaganyaan It will be India’s manned space mission in 2022[43]. It is intended to send three astronauts to space for a minimum of seven days. It is later planned to have a permanent manned space station. 

Analysis. India along with USA and China are the leading players in exploring space for Helium-3 . As per Mr K Sivan, Chairman, ISRO,  “the countries which have the capacity to bring that source from the moon to Earth will dictate the process. I don’t want to be just a part of them, I want to lead them’’[44]. India has the complete capability set to harness energy from space. Additionally it has an advanced Atomic Energy program to handle nuclear power generation. India has the most cost effective  space and affordable program with indigenous knowledge base. We are on top of the game.   


Military Implications 


All major powers have very robust connectivity between their Military, Space and  Nuclear projects. It  is part of their Military Civil Fusion.  It is only in our country that the Military is divorced from these core issues. The military establishment should have a long term plan to be intermeshed and underpinning these cutting edge strategic programs to commence military civil fusion. The military cannot be mere bystanders in this game. 


Ensuring energy security through space is a multidisciplinary program. It has huge military spin offs. The technology fields which are involved are Nuclear, New Materials, Ultralight Devices and High-strength Materials , Super Conductors, Hydrogen, AI, Communications, Energy Harnessing, Robotics, and Cyber-space to name a few. All these technologies have a bearing on development of advanced weapon systems. Any space based military application including directed energy weapons are a subset of technologies derived from energy search in space.    


Hydrogen technology by itself WILL solve the Military requirement of energy on the battle field. As weapon systems get advanced, they will need stable energy supplies. This issue will be even more important in high altitudes and remote areas. Space based energy and hydrogen technologies will be the energy answer in remote and inhospitable areas. Fuel cells have tremendous potential in increasing battlefield stamina. It will solve huge operational and logistical problems. It will contribute immensely to controlling pollution and glacier melting also.


Initial research in energy through space will need to be carried out in High Altitudes in extremely low temperature and pressure conditions. Such research can only be done in conjunction with the military. 


As the space-energy systems start getting deployed they become vulnerable. Their physical security becomes important on Earth. Similarly as adversaries start acquiring/deploying  space-energy infrastructure, their vulnerabilities need to be exploited. A complete energy analysis well into the future will be necessary to develop own military capabilities. Protection and denial of energy resources will be a new and competitive domain in the future. 


As India progresses in the space-energy domain, it will gain ascendance in global hierarchy. Energy dominance will have major strategic spinoffs. Our aim should be to convert energy dominance into global strategic advantage. Indian Military has a lot of ground to cover.  


The countries which are likely to break out in energy security through space are USA, EU, China and India. Competition in space domain will increase. Alignment with China will not be possible geopolitically. There is tremendous value in aligning with USA to share costs in research as also to attain energy security. It will be a huge step towards strategic independence. 


Military exploitation of space platforms for surveillance, navigation, communication, meteorological or  weaponization are all energy dependant. Space based energy and other space applications have a seminal connect. The  Military must be involved in cutting edge areas of such research and development at grass roots level. Failure to do so, will only result in underutilisation of our capacity.              



In a scenario of increasing population, increasing energy demand, decreasing resource base and climate change, there is no option but to look at space for our future energy needs. Space offers energy security well into the future for mankind. However harnessing space-energy is a high technology, costly  and high risk endeavour. Some initiatives will succeed and some will fail. India is one of the countries which has the wherewithal  to harness energy from space and provide energy security to its people. The future holds promise. 


2 responses to “India’s Energy Security Through Space By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Very educative article

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