Space Energy: Is Space Solar Power Feasible?

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It’s always sunny in low-Earth orbit, so what better place to look for a source of solar energy?

With the end of “cheap oil” rumored to be rapidly approaching (if not already upon us), not to mention the effects of fossil fuel use upon the environment and climate, sources of alternate, clean and renewable energy appear to be the unavoidable wave of the future.

But the key factor in all these ventures is efficiency — how to get the most “bang for the buck” in the harnessing, creation and distribution of energy.

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Oil and coal must be extracted, shipped, refined and burnt, contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Wind needs to be 1) present, and 2) converted to energy with turbines, and water requires the construction of dams, which are not only expensive but also radically change the ecosystem of the river they are built upon. Even ground-based solar panels are subject to weather and the Earth’s day/night schedule.

Enter the concept of space solar power — using orbiting solar panels that constantly collect energy from the sun, unfiltered and uninterrupted, and “beam” it back down to Earth where it can be sent along the grid for use by communities.

The sun is constantly putting out incredibly vast amounts of radiant energy in all directions. (About the equivalent of 2 billion power plants’ worth of yearly energy every second!) Earth receives only a fraction of this output, yet capturing it has the potential of providing renewable and virtually pollution-free energy — especially in places where access to conventional power grids is limited or impossible.

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The video below, created by Mafic Studios, Inc. for the National Space Society and the National Security Space Office in Washington, D.C., shows how such an orbiting structure would work.

Basically, large sets of solar cells would gather the sun’s energy and send it wirelessly down to ground-based receptor/transformer stations, which would then distribute the electricity for use.

The process would create no hazardous waste or emissions.

Mark Hopkins, Senior Vice President of the National Space Society, stated “As the United States makes decisions now to answer the energy challenges of the next 50 years, space-based solar power must be a part of the answer. The NSSO-led study charts the path forward. While the technical challenges are real, significant investment now can build Space Solar Power into the ultimate energy source: clean, green, renewable, and capable of providing the vast amounts of power that the world will need. Congress, federal agencies and the business community should begin that investment immediately.”

Watch a video of the NSS’ Nov. 14 conference on space solar power.

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Now, over four years later, we have yet to see any significant development on the space solar power concept… meanwhile, the nations of the world continue to discuss how best to combat the undeniable and increasing complications of climate change. 

Although space solar power is currently far from ready, requiring plenty of research and engineering (and thus funding) to become a reality anytime soon, the technology is feasible… given the existence of affordable launch vehicles and in-orbit support operations. Still, isn’t it best to start development and testing sooner rather than later, when we will be under even more pressure to clean up our energy act?

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The future is coming, whether we’re ready or not. We need to be prepared for the energy needs of an ever-growing population, and even if space solar power won’t replace conventional energy anytime soon it may offer a supplemental source of power — with little negative impact on the environment.

Read more about space solar power here.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2011.

Image and video ©Mafic Studios, Inc.