In the race to replace traditional methods with , the United States is setting its sights on space. The Airforce Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Albuquerque is currently working on a  energy satellite. In collaboration with Northrop Grumman, an American global aerospace and defense technology company, the AFRL is aiming to create a satellite system that will gather energy from space, convert it into radio frequencies, and channel it back down to Earth. The primary goal is that the space-based  project will provide energy for remote military base operations. 

The project is known as the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstration and Research project, or SSPIDR, and will cost more than $100 million to create and launch. AFRL’s Space Vehicles Director, Colonel Eric Felt, told the Albuquerque Journal that “to ensure Department of Defense mission success, we must have the energy we need at the right place at the right time.”  

Major Tim Allen stated that the project is primarily to help replace convoy power deliveries used by troops. With the ability to send solar power from space to targeted areas, troops will no longer have to escort power convoys and are more likely to remain safe. The overall goal of the space-based solar system will be reliable, “wireless power transmission,” according to Allen.  

Details of the Space-Based Solar Array  

Developers of the AFRL space-based solar system are planning on creating a constellation of satellites with solar panels, spanning nearly 10,000-square meters across. The goal is that the solar energy gathered from the space structure can be targeted towards and electronically steered to specific locations. Rachel Delaney, the systems engineer for the space-based solar project, is currently working with a team to develop different demonstrations that will allow them to work out the details for a large-scale prototype.  

Some of the biggest challenges Delaney and her team will face involve combating thermal damages that the solar structure may incur, as well as supporting a mammoth solar array of this size in orbit.  

Increasing Interest in Space-Based Solar  

Beaming solar energy from space back to Earth is not a new concept. In fact, the idea of space-based solar energy production has been around since the 1960s. However, it has not been a technologically realistic nor cost-effective possibility until recently. Part of the AFRL’s challenge in moving forward with space-based solar energy will be to find out just how cost-effective such an idea will be. 

The good news is that with space-based solar energy, the solar panels can operate 24/7. According to Ali Hajimiri, an electrical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and director of their Space Solar Power Project, space-based solar has access to a constant power source. With no clouds, atmosphere, weather, or other obstructions, solar arrays in space can soak up the sun’s rays without interference or dependence on a day and night cycle. 

Space-Based Solar: The Solution to Earth’s Energy Crisis? 

Hajimiri, as well as other scientists and leaders that are pushing for space-based solar, are optimistic that we could test the first solar array in space within the next few years. Former NASA scientist, John Mankins, estimates that a space-based solar system could generate a constant flow of nearly 2,000 gigawatts of power. This is a massive upgrade in output compared to Earth’s largest solar production farm in Aswan, Egypt, which only produces 1.8 gigawatts of energy for the region. 

If scientists can find a way to build a successfully space-based solar energy system that is both cost-effective and efficient, we could see “virtually limitless and sustainable energy” provided to various markets and cities worldwide, according to Mankins. Mankins warns, however, that other problems, such as geopolitics, could hinder progress. 

Even though the AFRL space-based solar system will be used primarily for military operations, Delaney and Allen are hopeful that this solar project will be useful in the future for delivering solar energy to remote areas and other non-military communities around the world. Before long, we may just find that our energy on Earth is provided by space-based solar arrays floating in the atmosphere. 

Resources: 

https://www.abqjournal.com/1386648/afrl-looks-to-beam-solar-energy-from-space.html 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottsnowden/2019/03/12/solar-power-stations-in-space-could-supply-the-world-with-limitless-energy/ 

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