It sounds like science fiction: Huge solar power plants that float in space and radiate enormous amounts of energy onto the earth. And the concept, first developed by the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the 1920s, has long been mainly an inspiration for writers.
However, a century later, scientists are making great strides in implementing the concept. The European Space Agency has recognized the potential of these efforts and is now trying to fund such projects. She predicts that the first industrial resource we get from space will be “Radiance”.
Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, so much is at stake. From rising global temperatures to changing weather conditions, the effects of climate change can already be felt worldwide. Meeting this challenge requires radical changes in the way we generate and use energy.
Renewable energy technologies have developed dramatically in recent years, with improved efficiency and lower costs. However, a major obstacle to their inclusion is the fact that they do not provide a constant supply of energy. Wind and solar parks 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.
Advantages of the place
One possible way to get around this would be to generate solar energy in space. There are many advantages to this. A space-based solar power plant could go into orbit towards the sun 24 hours a day. The earth’s atmosphere also absorbs and reflects some of the sunlight, so solar cells above the atmosphere receive more sunlight and produce more energy.
One of the most important challenges is to assemble, launch and deploy such large structures. A single solar power plant may have to cover an area of up to 10 square kilometers – the equivalent of 1,400 soccer fields. The use of lightweight materials will also be crucial, as the greatest cost is the cost of launching the station into space with a rocket.
One proposed solution is to develop a swarm of thousands of smaller satellites that come together and configure into a single large solar generator. In 2017, researchers at the California Institute of Technology designed designs for a modular power plant made up of thousands of ultra-light solar cell tiles. They also showed a prototype of a tile weighing just 280 grams per square meter, similar to the weight of the card.
Recently, developments in manufacturing such as 3D printing have also been investigated for this application. At the University of Liverpool we are researching new manufacturing techniques for printing ultra-light solar cells on solar sails. A solar sail is a foldable, lightweight, and highly reflective membrane that can use the radiation pressure from the sun to propel a spaceship forward without fuel. We are investigating how solar cells can be embedded in awning structures to create large, fuel-free solar power plants.
These methods would allow us to build the power plants in space. Indeed, one day it may be possible to manufacture and deploy units in space from the International Space Station or the future lunar gateway station that will orbit the moon. Such devices could actually help power the moon.
The possibilities don’t end there. While we currently rely on materials from Earth to build power plants, scientists are also considering using resources from space in their manufacture, such as materials found on the moon.
Another major challenge will be to get the energy back to earth. It is planned to convert electricity from the solar cells into energy waves and to transmit them to an antenna on the earth’s surface using electromagnetic fields. The antenna would then convert the waves back into electricity. Researchers led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have already developed designs and demonstrated an orbiter system that should be capable of doing so.
There is still much to be done in this area, but the goal is for solar power plants in space to become a reality in the decades to come. Researchers in China have developed a system called Omega that is expected to be operational by 2050. This system should be able to feed 2 GW of maximum power into the earth grid, which is an enormous amount. To generate that much electricity with solar panels on earth, you would need more than six million of it.
Smaller solar power satellites such as those developed for moon rovers could be ready for use even earlier.
Science invests time and effort worldwide in the development of solar power plants in space. We hope that one day they can be an important tool in the fight against climate change.
University of Liverpool
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The UK government commissions research into space solar power plants
London, United Kingdom (SPX) November 17, 2020
The UK government has commissioned new research into space-based solar power systems (SBSP), which uses very large solar power satellites to collect solar energy, convert it into high-frequency radio waves and safely re-beam it to connected ground-based receivers on the power grid. It’s an idea first conjured up by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1941 and is now being studied by several nations because the light solar panels and wireless energy transfer technology … read more