Launch systems are key to space-based solar power implementation. Every piece of infrastructure destined for space must be shoved out of Earth’s gravitational field using one or more of the principal launch vehicle types. These include a wide variety of reusable launch vehicles (RLV). Some are of these are of the “vertical takeoff vertical landing” and “horizontal takeoff horizontal landing” types; some are “single stage to orbit” or “two-stage to orbit,” with the first stage from the ground. Other options are in development (Bienhoff 2008, p. 2).
At least in the beginning, Sunsats will employ the same private, commercial and government rockets used to lift communications satellite structures from Earth to space. Some plans involve assembling solar satellites and their antennas from components lifted by medium power rockets into a low-Earth orbit (LEO), possibly using the International Space Station as a staging area, later transferring the assembled unit into its final position in a geosynchronous, Sun-synchronous or other suitable orbit. Other plans call for inserting solar spacecraft and their large arrays directly into the designated orbit using more powerful thrusters.
Launching satellites safely and economically into space is among the greatest challenges of the satellite industry. But after many years of successes and failures, the industry is consistently delivering 90% of its payloads into designated orbits. This level of predictability will give the energy providers, as well as the insurance business, a high level of confidence that the launch providers can do what they say they can do.
The communications industry is now—and the solar power industry will soon be—the beneficiary of an ongoing global effort to regularize space transport, making it a viable business enterprise in the way that aerospace is today. To avoid the high costs of launching workers and material into space, some visionaries see space-based infrastructures being built from materials found on the Moon (and on near-Earth asteroids), with robotic manufacturing and assembly managed from Earth via virtual systems of communications and control. The orbits above the Van Allen radiation belts, where the Sunsats will operate, are too intense as a radiation environment for long-term workers, so most Sunsat construction and maintenance is expected to be done tele-robotically—by operators on the ground.