Space-based solar power has the potential to deliver a continuous supply of energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which would be an enormous benefit for the world’s energy requirements. While the amount of energy that space-based solar power could collect is staggering, there are some obstacles to overcome. In this article, we take a closer look at space-based solar power and the new 246-foot tower China has built to test such a system.
What Is Space-based Solar Power?
The notion of space-based solar power is to collect the sun’s energy using photovoltaic cells and then beam that energy back to Earth. The benefits of this are that it would provide a continuous supply of energy and could be placed in orbit around the equator where sunlight is more consistent.
There are a few different ways that this could be accomplished. One is to have a large array of mirrors that focus the sun’s light onto a central receiver. The second is to have a large number of small satellites, each collecting a small amount of energy which they beam back to Earth.
Challenges Of Space-based Solar Power
Despite the immense benefits of space-based solar power, there are some obstacles to overcome. This includes the cost of launching such a project and understanding what effects a high-frequency energy beam could have on communications, air traffic and people living in the area.
The biggest challenge by far is the cost of building the required infrastructure, launching satellites into orbit and finding the most efficient way to transmit the energy back to Earth. Still, investing in this technology seems a sure bet, especially with China’s 246-foot tower that will be used to test a new solar power system.
China’s Ground Array To Collect Solar Power From Space
Some time ago, we wrote an article about solar power from space and now, it seems the world is one step closer to achieving it. Scientists from China’s Xidian University have tested a purpose-built ground array to collect space-based solar power.
This was the “world’s first full-link and full-system solar power plant” which took place on June 5, according to a press release from the university. The space-based solar power plant is made from steel and is located on the Xidian University’s southern campus, standing 246 feet tall (75 meters).
How Will The Space-based Solar Power System Work?
The Xidian University power plant will theoretically link to geostationary satellites that collect solar power 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thanks to their orbits, they should be able to beam the solar power down to Earth through high-frequency microwave beams.
This new ground array station is part of a space-based solar power proposal named OMEGA (Orb-Shape Membrane Energy Gathering Array). Duan Baoyan and his colleagues from the Xidian University School of Electromechanical first proposed the concept in 2014.
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Is Such A Solar Power Project Feasible?
Space-based solar power has tremendous potential since it can collect energy without concerns over bad weather or having to wait for daybreak. China’s ground array is part of the solution but not the only one. In fact, NASA announced a similar project in 2012 called SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array).
According to NASA, if successful, SPS-ALPHA “will make possible the construction of huge platforms from tens of thousands of small elements that can deliver remotely and affordably 10s to 1000s of megawatts using wireless power transmission to markets on Earth and missions in space.”
Meanwhile, China’s OMEGA project has successfully transmitted energy wirelessly as microwaves over 180 feet (55 meters). While it’s a far cry from transmitting energy back to earth, they are making progress but more work is required. It may be a few years before we see a fully operational space-based solar power system.
Reducing Launch Costs Of Satellites Using 3D Printing
One of the biggest challenges with space-based solar power is the cost of launching satellites or other devices into orbit. The current cost of launching a single satellite is between $5,000 and $10,000 per kilogram. This means that a single satellite could cost anywhere from $50 million to more than $100 million. Fortunately, this is already coming down thanks to SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rockets but it’s still a consideration.
One solution to help reduce the cost of launching satellites is using 3D printing. This technology is already being used to create small satellites and it’s possible that larger satellites could be printed in the future. If the cost of launching satellites could be reduced, it would go a long way to making space-based solar power a reality.
The Challenge Of Beaming Energy Back To Earth
Along with the cost of launching satellites, another challenge is beaming the energy from a space-based solar power system back to Earth. The most efficient way to do this is with microwaves or lasers but there are some concerns about the safety of using high-frequency waves.
There is also the challenge of atmospheric interference as it can absorb or scatter a large percentage of a microwave beam. This means that a large amount of energy is lost before it even reaches the ground. While we could use a larger and more powerful beam, it would require a larger satellite which would be more expensive to launch.
One solution is placing the satellites in geosynchronous orbit where the satellite can match the Earth’s rotation. This means the satellite appears to be in the same spot at all times, allowing for a direct line of sight between the satellite and Earth.
Despite the challenges, space-based solar power is an exciting possibility for the future. It has the potential to provide clean, renewable energy for the entire planet. It’s also a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and help combat climate change.
Unfortunately, it remains unclear if the benefits would outweigh the costs, especially in the short term. The good news is, that the cost of solar panels has dropped considerably and if we can overcome these challenges, space-based solar power could be a game-changer for the world’s energy needs.
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