The community is, once again, taking a giant leap forward. Solar energy researchers have been utilizing water, land, and air to fuel renewable energy processes for years, and now, the race is on to build solar energy satellites in space. China, in particular, is at the forefront of bringing the idea of creating solar energy satellites into full fruition, at least in this century. The nation’s ambitious plan calls for the launch of a series of small solar power satellite stations into the Earth’s stratosphere between 2021 and 2025. By 2030, the solar power stations will be upgraded to megawatt-level facilities and gigawatt-level capacity by 2050. 

Space-based solar energy is a brilliant, but highly speculated idea. The brilliance is that sunlight exists in space 24-hours a day, making it the optimal environment to harness solar energy from the sun. The problem, however, is getting the solar energy collected back to Earth in a useable form. China is proposing that the solar energy be converted into electricity right in space prior to being beamed back via laser or microwave frequencies into a receiving system. 

Revisiting a Decades Old Idea 

Believe it or not, solar energy in space is not a new idea. In fact, space-based solar power (SBSP) was first introduced by a science fiction writer by the name of Isaac Asimov. In 1941, he published a science fiction story titled, ‘Reason.’ the novel depicts a space station that is able to collect and solar energy and transmit it to other plants in the solar system through the use of microwave beams. The concept of space-based solar power as we know it today, however, was not introduced until 1968. Then, in 1973 a U.S. patent allowed researchers at Arthur D. Little, Inc in Boston to test how to transmit power over long distances, such as from a satellite solar-power system (SSPS) in space, back to Earth’s surface. Peter Glaser, the vice president of Arthur D. Little, Inc at the time, then expanded his research to include NASA and four additional companies to participate in a broader, investigative study into the transmission of energy through space-based solar power. 

The United States Department of Energy teamed up with Arthur D. Little, Inc and NASA to further investigate the concept of space-based solar power from 1978 to 1986. With approval from Congress and a budget of $50 million, the DoE and NASA named the study the Satellite Power System and Concept Development and Evaluation Program. The primary purpose was to test the engineering capabilities and general feasibility of space-based solar energy.  

After the program was discontinued, NASA revamped its interest in 1997 in order to assess what had changed from the initial DoE space-based solar energy study. Concerns over the costs of a space solar energy program were debated by NASA officials, with some experts stating that certain investments would drive down space-based solar costs, while others like Dr. Pete Worden claimed that any solutions proposed at the time being unfeasible, highly expensive, and decades away. 

The Challenges of Space-Based Solar Power 

Over two decades since Dr. Worden first voiced his speculations, China is taking the lead in the solar community and getting serious of space-based solar energy. The task at hand, however, will present numerous, seemingly insurmountable challenges. Primarily, the weight of the solar stations themselves. It is predicted that each power station could weigh as much as 1,000 tons. Due to the predicted weight of the stations, initially getting them into orbit will be difficult. One solution has been to use 3D printing, where possible, to construct the solar-based power stations. Additionally, the effects of the microwave radiation that will be beamed back to Earth will need to be studied.  

Even though obtaining and utilizing solar energy from space may present some of the greatest challenges that solar energy researchers have faced, keep in mind that it has been less than 80 years since Asimov first proposed the idea of space-based solar power. Throughout every decade since, there has been notably and historical progression in our technological advancements. It is not in the slightest bit outlandish to believe that someday very soon, solar satellites will be able to provide clean and sustainable energy for our entire planet. 

Resources:

https://www.engadget.com/2019/02/18/china-solar-farm-power-station-space-2025/ 

https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/solar-farms-space-could-be-renewable-energy-s-next-frontier-ncna967451 

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Kalley Danese is a full-time psychology student. She lives in Portland, Oregon and has enjoyed writing professionally and personally for many years. She hopes to one day publish both fiction and non-fiction books.

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