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Scientists Take Huge Leap Toward Renewable Energy with Space-Based Solar Power

Discover how scientists have achieved a ground-breaking breakthrough in beaming solar energy from space, paving the way for a sustainable energy revolution.

Abstract scientific background - glowing planet Earth in space, solar eclipse, nebula, and stars. Source: Shutterstock/IgorZh

Scientists have achieved a significant advancement in the conveyance of solar power from space, which could revolutionize our utilization of renewable energy. 

Visionary Ideas

In 1968, Peter Glaser, an engineer on the Apollo missions, had a bold idea before humans went to the moon. His theory was simple but groundbreaking. He proposed using giant solar cells in space to collect uninterrupted sunlight. These solar cells would be free from obstacles like clouds, darkness, or changing seasons.

The publication Science published Glaser’s innovative thoughts. He considered solar power from space and nuclear fusion as the only alternatives to fossil fuels for society’s primary energy source. He thought about harnessing solar energy from space. He also considered nuclear fusion as an option.

He believed these two methods were the only viable alternatives to replace fossil fuels. He saw them as the future’s primary energy sources for society. Fusion looked so far away on the skyline that Glaser dismissed it as a physicist’s foolish dream.

A Milestone Achieved by Caltech’s

Scientists in Pasadena, California, USA, made a significant breakthrough in the search for solar energy in space. Under the instruction of the California Institute of Technology, these innovators conducted revolutionary research in partnership with SpaceX. This test, launched in January, instantaneously transported energy from orbit to Earth.

Caltech tested a satellite and achieved a remarkable outcome. This outcome marked a significant moment in solar energy research conducted in space. Glaser’s one imaginary idea has evolved into reality today.

Engineering Evolution: Space Solar’s Modern Regeneration

Caltech scientist Harry Atwater discusses concerns with using satellites for solar energy in the school’s Space Solar Energy Project.

He recognizes that when he initially heard about the idea, it seemed ridiculous. However, he invented the concept and pursued its development despite his inability to deny it.

Harry Atwater is a dedicated technologist who works hard to combat global warming. Members rely on the shoulders of ancestors such as Peter Glaser, who created the idea in 1968 but died in 2014. Experts have made rotating solar power stations lighter using thin film solar cells and cheap carbon-fiber frames.

Also, companies like SpaceX have made it much cheaper to send things into space. Space-based solar energy plants won’t require skilled workers in heavy suits anymore. Instead, we can design the plant parts to move quickly in space.

The Historical Vision of Space-Based Solar Power

In 2020, the US Navy made a system in a spacecraft to create solar energy using microwaves. This achievement made it possible to have power stations in space. As a result, scientists developed solar technology in space.

Challenges and Obstacles in Making Space-Based Solar Power a Reality

Many space organizations, like ESA, China, Japan, and the UK, are interested in space solar projects. Despite making efforts, we are still a few decades away from undertaking orbital tests for these projects. NASA, a well-known aerospace institution, does not fully participate in space-based solar energy competitions. This lack of involvement raises questions about NASA’s role in this field.

Setting up a system of solar power stations in space is highly challenging because of technological and financial obstacles. We have yet to find any significant issues, but proving these initiatives are financially feasible is still challenging.

Sanjay Vijendran, the head of ESA’s Solaris initiative, emphasizes the importance of initiating the mission despite the challenges. He also highlights the urgency to act swiftly. The main goal is to go from theoretical debates to reality while considering the moment is essential.

Evaluating the Economic Feasibility of Space-Based Solar Power

A recent report suggests space-based solar power could become as affordable as traditional energy sources. The UK government’s Frazer-Nash Consultancy conducted the report. 

We expect the cost of investment and operations to range from £35 to £79 per megawatt-hour over 18 years. Although the prediction appears positive, it is essential to emphasize that some may consider it unrealistic.

A new wind power plant in the US will cost between $63 and $103 per Mw/h. The plant utilizes backup batteries and well-known technology. Many people view space-based solar energy as a distant scientific breakthrough that is always a few decades away.

People consider space-based solar energy a challenging goal they always desire but find difficult to achieve. To create a significant quantity of electricity using this way, the solar power plants would have to be larger than anything that humankind has ever placed in space.

They have to handle dangers from small space rocks and debris. They also have to deal with energy loss when transmitting power through microwaves. Because of their capacity to enter clouds, microwaves are the preferred transmitting technology. Unexpectedly, the fundamental idea of space-based solar power goes back far longer than Peter Glaser’s proposal.

In 1941, recognized novelist Isaac Asimov published the short tale “Reason.” This story takes place on a space station that gathers solar energy and delivers it to a distant Earth. The account must detail the station’s energy transmission or the system’s exact technical operations.

During his childhood in Iran, Ali Hajimiri, a coworker of Harry Atwater’s, came across a version of the tale that had a great impression on him. Hajimiri first encountered the idea of space-based solar power through the lens of science fiction.

Caltech’s Innovative Approach to Space-Based Solar Power

Donald Bren, a wealthy property investor and Caltech trustee, discovered space solar power in a Popular Science magazine. In 2011, he introduced talks with the institution’s president, creating a research initiative. Donald and Brigitte, both board members, donated over $100 million to support this fantastic performance.

Professionals from several areas make up Caltech’s project team. The team invited Harry Atwater and Ali Hajimiri, experts in their fields, to join. Sergio Pellegrino, specializing in ultralight constructions, filled out the team’s roster.

What differentiates this Caltech work from other space-based solar power initiatives is its deviation from established techniques. Caltech’s idea is like changing from one big animal to many small animals, according to Hajimiri.

Caltech’s solar power plants would consist of multiple kite-like solar arrays that rotate. We would launch such displays in a folding shape, and then they would unfold once in space. They may maintain their relative locations by using tiny thrusters. They would create a giant solar plant, a mile wide, without physical links between the panels.

This new idea is unlike old ideas about space solar power, which sends energy using large microwave dishes. Caltech’s unique method involves transmitters on panels working together to send power. They employ constructive and destructive interference to direct the energy to its desired location precisely. A large receiver, shaped like a chicken wire mesh, would catch and manage the beamed radiation on Earth.

The spinning solar facility can easily redirect its energy to provide electricity in areas affected by disasters or war. This is especially useful when the regular power system is not functioning correctly. Hajimiri suggests that this feature forms a mat-like structure that expands to establish the receiving station.

Challenges and Safety Concerns in Space-Based Solar Power Transmission

Propagation of energy from satellite to Land is one of the significant issues with satellite-based solar energy. It’s a difficult chore that frequently generates worries about possible dangers. Sending energy through space causes concerns about a potentially harmful “destruction ray.” Additionally, there are worries about the potential impact on birds or planes flying beneath these power beams.

The Caltech team, on the other hand, claims that these fears are mainly baseless. They underline that the energy transmitted by the beam’s power density would be equivalent to sunshine. In practice, wandering beneath this ray would expose you to more sunburn from natural sunlight than from the microwave beam. Nonetheless, convincing the masses about the program’s safety could pose a potential challenge.

The Caltech team is now gathering data from its orbital research. They test how a small system grows in extreme space conditions and the power transfer test. Another component of their study is testing the efficiency of different solar energy sources while subjected to space environments. Despite their advances, a completely space-based solar system is still just a decade away.

Supporters of space solar energy believe it can happen if people are willing to go for it. They suggest tapping a plentiful and unexplored substance in space is tempting.

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