The idea of a solar power plant in space has actually been around since 1968, American aerospace engineer Dr. Peter Glaser pioneered the space solar power concept and proposed the deployment of giant solar panels in space in order to generate microwaves that could be transmitted back to Earth to produce electricity. The concept sparked a lot of interest, even from NASA, but it came to a halt in the ‘80s because of the high costs involved. Japan, however, pursued the idea and is currently the world leader of the Space Solar Power Systems (SSPS) project.
The plan is to build a giant satellite, hovering around 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth, it would be several miles long and weigh around 10,000 metric tons. Floating solar panels would be tethered to a station on the ground in order to keep the satellite at a fixed point in geostationary orbit. The proposed model also includes a set of mirrors that reflect the sun’s light onto the panels so that when the satellite is not facing the sun it can still receive sunlight. Collecting sunlight from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, provides a continuous supply, with almost no influence from the weather, the seasons, or time of day. Since the energy source is the sun, it’s an endlessly renewable resource, Also, because the power is generated in space and carbon dioxide is emitted only at the receiving site, emissions within the Earth’s atmosphere can be greatly reduced, which makes this technology very environmentally friendly.
The more complex part is how to transport that solar energy back to Earth. JAXA is currently conducting ground-based experiments to find the most efficient way to transmit energy. There are two possible ways this could be achieved either converting the solar energy into laser beams or microwaves, or perhaps even a combination of both, which would then be transmitted to a receiving facility (called a “rectenna” [rectifying antenna]) situated on Earth. Ground-based experiments are currently underway to discern which option would be most efficient.
When transmitting power by microwaves, a significant technological challenge is how to control the direction, and transmit it with pinpoint accuracy from a geostationary orbit to a receiving site on the ground. Japan currently has the most advanced technology to do this but transmitting microwaves from an altitude of 36,000 kilometers to a flat surface 3 km in diameter is like threading a needle from space.
There are many other technological challenges to solve before SSPS can be implemented. However, in principle, it is getting close to the stage where it is feasible. Researchers have started preparation for the world’s first demonstration of 1kW-class wireless power transmission technology, and are aiming for practical use in the 2030s. It’s predicted that SSPS will be able to process around 1 gigawatt of power, which is a similar amount to nuclear power stations.
Although Japan is the leading country with regards to making SSPS happen, in reality the costs will be so astronomical that it is likely contributions from other countries will be required before we see this behemoth space power station start to take shape however, JAXA believe they are getting tantalizingly close to turning this vision into a reality.
Sources: JAXA, Japan Space Systems, iflscience.com
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