The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a groundbreaking program, Solaris, that aims to investigate the possibility of wirelessly beaming electricity from space into millions of homes. At a meeting in Paris in November, research ministers approved funding to evaluate the idea of constructing solar farms in space to generate electricity.
The ESA plans to construct giant solar panels and satellites in orbit that can capture sunlight to generate the same amount of electricity as a power station. The energy would be transferred to Earth via wireless microwaves and then converted to electricty.
The concept of space-based solar power has been around for over 50 years, but the cost of implementation has been prohibitively high. However, recent advances in the private sector have led to the plummeting cost of launches, thanks to reusable rockets and other innovations. This has enabled the ESA to consider the construction of solar farms in space to generate electricity.
The ESA is far from the only entity to compete in this new race to space!
The UK government is considering building a solar power station in space. A massive space-based solar power station is being proposed with a whopping £16 billion budget.
Similar to the ESA’s plan, it involves a solar power satellite that collects solar energy in space and then transfers it to Earth wirelessly using high-frequency radio waves. The energy would then be converted and delivered to the power grid through a ground antenna.
Pilot projects are also underway in the US, Japan and China. China plans to generate 1MW of energy using space energy by 2030, with a full-scale power plant in space by 2050.
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory has partnered with Northrop Grumman to advance space-based power initiatives. Elon Musk’s SpaceX already has reusable rockets to transport payloads to space.
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Advantages of a Space-based Power Station
One of the critical advantages of collecting solar energy in space is that it can be collected much more efficiently due to the absence of night and clouds. The Solaris program will focus on establishing whether it is possible to transfer the collected solar energy to electricity grids on Earth wirelessly. Microwave beams will be used to transmit electricity wirelessly, as an extremely long cable would not be practical.
This type of solar power system would have a major advantage over terrestrial solar power systems because it would be illuminated by the sun 24 hours a day, generating electricity continuously for 99% of the year. In comparison, systems on Earth can only produce electricity during the day and are dependent on weather conditions.
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Challenges of a Space-based Power Station
But, of course, building a solar power station in space comes with its own set of challenges. Transporting all the solar modules and equipment into space is costly, difficult, and has an environmental impact. Additionally, assembling the solar power station in space will require many space shuttle launches, which will lead to significant emissions and costs, as per a World Economic Forum report.
The report also cautioned that the solar panels could be damaged by space debris, and degrade faster due to the increased exposure to solar radiation. Furthermore, transmitting energy across large distances is difficult, and only a small fraction of the collected solar energy would reach Earth based on current technology.
Is It Safe?
The Solaris team has already demonstrated the principle of transmitting electricity wirelessly, safely, and efficiently. At a demonstration at the aerospace firm Airbus in Munich in September, engineers successfully sent 2 KW of power collected from solar cells wirelessly to collectors more than 30 meters away. However, the challenge is to scale up the transmission of gigawatts of power over thousands of miles.
Jean Dominique Coste, a senior manager for Airbus’s blue sky division, has said that it can be achieved in a series of small steps.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ray Simpkin, the chief scientist of Emrod, the firm that developed the wireless beaming system, has reassured the public that the technology is safe. In a BBC interview, he said, “Nothing will get fried. The power is spread out over such a large area that even at its peak intensity in the center of the beam, it will not be hazardous to animals or humans.”
The ESA’s director general, Josef Aschbacher, has expressed his belief that space-based solar power could greatly help address future energy shortages. He told BBC, “We do need to convert into carbon-neutral economies and therefore change the way we produce energy and especially reduce the fossil fuel part of our energy production.”
According to Dr. Sanjay Vijendran, the scientist leading the Solaris initiative, the idea of space-based solar power is no longer science fiction. As per BBC, he said, “The potential is there, and we now need to understand the technological path before a decision can be made to go ahead with trying to build something in space.”
So fear not! Space-based solar power is turning out to be a real possibility and is far from the villainous death rays that we’ve seen in movies. It is an exciting opportunity for research and development in the energy sector.
Assuming it succeeds, in the next few decades, if solar arrays are deployed in orbit and able to transmit gigawatts of energy to Earth. It could complement other renewable energy sources and contribute to mitigating climate change.
Who knows, in the future, we could all benefit from solar power beamed down from space!
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