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Are space solar power stations on the horizon?

It sounds like science fiction: giant solar power stations floating in space that beam down enormous amounts of energy to Earth. And for a long time, the concept – first developed by the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the 1920s – was the main inspiration for writers.

A century later, however, scientists are making huge strides in turning the concept into reality. The European Space Agency has realised the potential of these efforts and is now looking to fund such projects, predicting that the first industrial resource we will get from space is “beamed power”.

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, so there’s a lot at stake. From rising global temperatures to shifting weather patterns, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the globe. Overcoming this challenge will require radical changes to how we generate and consume energy.

Renewable energy technologies have developed drastically in recent years, with improved efficiency and lower cost. But one major barrier to their uptake is that they don’t provide a constant supply of energy.

Wind and solar farms only produce energy when the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining – but we need electricity around the clock, every day. Ultimately, we need a way to store energy on a large scale before we can switch to renewable sources.

The ‘switch to solar’ is as much of serious consideration as it is an inevitable necessity. And while more and more efforts are being made on an everyday basis to use as much solar power as possible on Earth, it seems like the concept is about to take a turn that can best be described as ‘sci-fi.’

Solar power has been around for a long time. When the first manufactured satellite took to space in the 1960s, we had the concept operational. We have been harnessing it for use in space for over five decades now. And yet, it has taken so much time to become ubiquitous.

Why?

There are many reasons for this, with the most prominent one being that sending solar-generated electricity from space to the earth can seem like a logistical nightmare. After all, we can’t really use wire in this scenario, can we?

But there might be a solution that can make this a reality. Let’s dive in, shall we?

The concept

A solar space station will have one job—to orbit the earth in a fashion that it faces the sun 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for every year of its operation (the satellite will have to be slotted for this) and collect solar power. There won’t be any issues with a setup like this that can set it back, like climate issues or a lack of sunlight during nighttime.

The methodology

The station will first convert solar energy to electricity, just as any photovoltaic device does. Now, the question remains:

how can it transfer that energy to earth?

Well, the solution is simple enough. The solar space station will convert this electricity into microwave energy and beam it down to the planet.

The energy will be received and converted back into electricity. The ‘millimetre wavelength’ can optimally make the process (this is the wavelength used during 5G communication).

The challenges

The first challenge lies in the satellite’s position itself. For the satellite to effectively beam down waves, it will have to be in a geosynchronous orbit, just like a telecommunications satellite is. 36,000 km above the earth’s surface is a good place for such a setup.

The earth will have a point where a receiving center will be built. However, the problem can come if the satellite isn’t positioned well enough to follow the protocol for years on end so that the point where it emits the beam doesn’t slowly shift.

The second option would be to put the satellite in a low-earth orbit and build several receiving stations.

However, scientists have noted that these challenges aren’t as difficult to solve as one might think they are, which gives us at the Swiss Institute for Disruptive Innovation a lot of hope about seeing this operational in the coming decades.

The other issue can be logistics. Millions of solar panels will have to be transported up to space, which is anything but a simple or cost-effective task. Here, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can prove to be the innovators that can provide reusable rockets to get the job done with much efficiency.

The U.S. is not alone

In March 2019, a story was published in Forbes magazine that revealed that China also has plans to build and launch a space solar station. While China hasn’t confirmed the story yet, they seem reasonable to turn to space for energy.

With this concept on the table, the future looks bright indeed. It is only a matter of time till we run out of fuel we use to make electricity. Space solar stations can advance humankind by leaps and bounds—and if you want to be a part of the revolution in the future, we recommend our Space and Architecture course would be a good place to start!

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