The European Space Agency (ESA) looks set to approve a plan to explore whether solar energy could possibly be collected by satellites in space and beamed right down to Earth. The project is amongst numerous proposals into account on the ESA’s Council Meeting at Ministerial Level which was held yesterday and continues today in Paris, France. If given the green light and ultimately successful, the concept could see giant solar farms placed into orbit that every collect as much energy as a standard power station.
The advantage of operating solar panels outside the atmosphere is twofold, the ESA explains. First, sunlight received there may be more intense than that which reaches the Earth’s surface — and second, it could actually be collected constantly, no matter time or weather.
Given this, space-based solar energy could possibly be of “enormous” assist in addressing future energy shortages, ESA Director General Dr Josef Aschbacher told BBC News.
He added: “We do have to convert into carbon neutral economics and due to this fact change the way in which we produce energy and particularly reduce the fossil fuel a part of our energy production.
“Should you can do it from space — and I’m saying if we could, because we will not be there yet — this could be absolutely improbable because it might solve plenty of problems.”
The ESA’s proposed preparatory programme, dubbed “SOLARIS” — meaning “of or pertaining to the Sun” — can be a three-year investigation to explore the technical, political and programmatic viability of space-based solar energy for a call in 2025 on the potential for a full-scale development programme.
A spokesperson for the space agency added: “The challenge of decarbonising Europe’s energy sector over the approaching a long time is a large one. Along with the needed massive increase of ground-based solar and wind, that are intermittent by nature, there may be an urgent need for brand new grid balancing and back-up power sources.
“Due to this fact, within the larger context of an energy transition, estimated by the International Energy Agency to require investments of trillions of euros, quite a lot of alternative sources are under study, including geothermal and, in the long term, nuclear fusion.
“SOLARIS will help resolve if it is possible so as to add space-based solar energy — a decades-old concept for delivering clean energy — to this work list.”
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Under the SOLARIS concept, solar energy stations can be placed into geostationary orbit — that’s, maintaining position above the identical location on the Earth’s surface.
These would then harvest sunlight, in the identical way solar panels do on Earth, before converting the energy into low-power density microwaves for wireless transmission right down to receiver stations on the bottom, from which the energy could enter the grid.
The ESA said: “The physics involved implies that these satellites would must be large, on the order of several kilometres in size — and the identical being true for the collecting ‘rectennas’ on the Earth’s surface.”
Before such will be realised in practice, nonetheless, technical advancements are needed in various fields — from in-space manufacturing and solar panel efficiencies to high-power electronics and radio frequency beamforming.
As well as, studies will must be undertaken to be certain that the low-power microwave beams wouldn’t pose a risk to animal or human health — nor to aircraft or satellites.
Early signs of the feasibility of the concept are promising, nonetheless, with a ground-based demonstration undertaken at an Airbus facility in Munich, Germany back in September having shown that it is feasible to beam two kilowatts of power wirelessly to collectors knelt 100 feet away. It stays to be seen, nonetheless, whether such will be scaled as much as send gigawatts of power over distances of tens of 1000’s of miles from orbit.
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Project lead Dr Sanjay Vijendran said: “These are the form of technical questions that SOLARIS will look into, to explore further the feasibility of the concept, in order that Europe could make an informed decision in 2025 on whether to proceed with a space-based solar energy programme in the long run.”
He continued: “As an added plus, any breakthroughs achieved in these areas can be invaluable in their very own right, applicable to many spaceflight endeavours.
“The error that is usually made is to match the concept with ground-based solar energy, when really space solar offers novel characteristics resembling baseload power that really serves to enrich fairly than compete with intermittent sources like ground solar and wind.
“On this sense, they might offer an alternate choice to nuclear power in the long run — where studies show that the space-based solution finally ends up being surprisingly competitive.”
SOLARIS is removed from the one space-based solar energy project within the pipeline. In 2020, for instance, the European Commission funded a five-year investigation dubbed SOLSPACE, while the UK’s Space Energy Initiative is trying to have its first operational orbital power station by 2035. Similar projects are also underway in China, Japan and the US.
Dr Sanjay Vijendran concluded: “Considering the climate and energy crises, and the rapid strides we’re making in space capability, now could be the time to analyze if space-based solar energy will be a part of the answer. It’s the responsible thing to do.”