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Space Solar Energy – The Bright Future for Solar in the 21st Century

What is Space Solar Energy?

Whenever you mention the discussion of using solar energy in space, you often refer to space-based solar power, which is a method that would collect solar energy in space and then transmit the energy to Earth through waves. How it would work from a scientific standpoint is that solar panels on a satellite would collect the solar energy, and the energy would be sent to Earth through microwaves or lasers, where a microwave antenna will receive the energy on Earth. This is only a general idea of how it works since there isn’t a working prototype in space at this current moment.

Source: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory
Why support Space Solar Energy?

Understandably, space solar energy isn’t going to be accessible to everyone, but it would provide an alternative to solar power on a national scale. Unlike solar panels on Earth, solar panels in space would continuously generate electricity, since there isn’t a day and night cycle in space. Space solar panels are expected to constantly generate 2,000 GW of power, which is 40 times more energy than a solar panel on Earth annually, and the Department of Energy claims “Upwards of 1 GW of energy to a receiver is enough to power a large city”. In addition, space solar energy also shares many benefits as solar energy on earth, such as no greenhouse gas emissions, no pollution, with the only drawback being the cost of production.  

Brief History of Space Solar Energy

In our current time, the idea of having space-based power stations isn’t far from reality, in contrast to when the concept was first introduced in the 1920s by a Russian scientist. Prior to the Space Race that started in 1955, the idea of space solar was often used in science fiction works, such as Isaac Asimov’s short story, Reason, which was set in a space station that utilized solar energy to send to other planets through microwaves. During the Space Race, specifically between 1977 to 1981, the DOE and NASA conducted a study called Satellite Power System Concept Development and Evaluation Program, which included concepts of a solar power satellite. Unfortunately, no works on a solar power satellite ever took place due to the Office of Technology Assessment deeming it to be a high-risk venture. After the research between the DOE and NASA was discontinued, NASA created the Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology program to focus on developing solar power satellites. 

Fun Fact in 2014, there was an article called “It’s Always Sunny in Space” by Susumu Sasaki that details Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s plans to build a solar farm in space. 

The current state of Space Solar Energy

While there isn’t a satellite in our orbit for solar energy at this time, there have been multiple satellite tests that have been launched in recent years. In 2020, a test satellite was launched by the US Naval Research Laboratory that was able to successfully convert sunlight to solar energy through microwaves. Just recently the California Institute of Technology or Caltech announced that they will be launching their first satellite test of the Space-based Solar Power Project in early 2023. Japan and China are the leading competitors for the race for space solar energy, although the two have expected launch dates that are in a couple of decades, which would indicate they could be looking into better technology to achieve space solar energy. In conclusion, as we continue to improve the technology that will aid in space solar energy, the possibility of having a satellite or station for solar energy is closer than you might think.

Source: Caltech

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