Yesterday Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on “Exploration and the Future of U.S. Leadership in Space.” What seems to have attracted the most attention, and perhaps some confusion, are some comments she made in her speech about the role the ISS could play regarding energy production. Here is what she said on the topic:
We had a great hearing in our committee where Dr. Sam Ting, who is a Nobel laureate at MIT, he talked about the importance of the basic science that can be done on the space station and especially in light of our energy crisis in this country. He said that what they’re trying to do is go to the dark side, the dark energy that is in the universe, the energy that scientists believe is propelling the galaxies and the expanding universe. We believe, and Dr. Ting believes, that if we could improve the understanding of that dark energy, that matter, that that would help us find a new source of power, perhaps, if we could harness that energy, maybe a new source of energy that we could use on Earth. That is one of the things that he wants to do if we could get the space station finished with the equipment that he needs. Well, at a time when we’re desperate for new sources of energy, while China and India are exploding as industrialized nations and we see the price of energy going up all over the world, this is something that we should explore. That is something that the 16 nations who are part of the space station could do together, because all of us have a common goal of needing more efficient energy in all of our countries.
Now, that does sound an awful lot like trying to harness dark energy for power production, something that I imagine that most (if not virtually all) scientists would find a bit ludicrious, if for nothing else that there’s no consensus regarding just what dark energy is.
If her statements sound vaguely familiar, there’s a good reason: at an STA breakfast in early March, Sen. Hutchison said, “We had a great Commerce Committee hearing with Dr. Samuel Ting, the Nobel laureate at MIT, who talked about cosmic rays being the most important energy source in space that we can start probing to see how we can harness that to provide energy, energy in space, but maybe we can bring it back here too.” That’s very similar to yesterday’s comments; only that cosmic rays have since been replaced by dark energy, it seems.
So what exactly is she talking about? Several weeks back a staffer sent me a document describing the potential benefits of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the instrument being developed by an international team led by Dr. Ting that is intended to fly on the ISS. And, indeed, one of the first benefits listed by Dr. Ting is “enhanced energy production”. However, he’s referring to enhanced terrestrial energy production, by spinning off the superconducting magnet technology being developed for the instrument:
Both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union have recognized the importance of using superconducting magnets to enhance energy production by harnessing nuclear energy directly. Both countries have invested substantially in the development of many such devices to convert nuclear power directly to electricity without the necessity of traditional heavy turbines using a system called Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). Since an MHD generator can directly convert nuclear energy to electricity without degrading its high quality, as is common in conventional turbine-generators, the power conversion efficiency is significantly higher than conventional nuclear reactor power plants.
Nowhere does the document mention using the AMS, or technologies derived from it, to try and harness cosmic rays or dark energy for energy production. So the AMS may be used to study cosmic rays or dark energy (or, more likely, dark matter, which is something completely different from dark energy), and AMS-derived spinoff technologies may enhance energy production on Earth. Unfortunately, Sen. Hutchison has appeared to short-circuit the two ideas by combining them into an unlikely amalgam.