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On-Demand Space-Based Solar Power: The New Strategic Race

Introduction

In a world marked by escalating energy demands and an urgent need for sustainable power sources to combat climate change, the quest for innovative energy technologies has reached new heights. In the quest for sustainable and efficient sources of clean energy, a groundbreaking technology is emerging on the global stage, promising to reshape the future of power generation.

Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) stands at the forefront of this revolution, offering the potential for unlimited, renewable electricity generation. This innovative concept harnesses solar energy directly from space, transmitting it wirelessly to Earth, through microwaves or lasers, and it is quickly becoming the new strategic race in the realm of renewable energy.

 

The Power of Space-Based Solar Energy

Space-Based Solar Power involves capturing sunlight in space and converting it into electricity using solar panels or other advanced technologies. The key advantage of SBSP is its ability to generate energy continuously, unaffected by weather conditions or the day-night cycle on Earth. This consistent power supply could revolutionize how we meet our energy demands, offering a sustainable and reliable source of electricity.

The roots of Space-Based Solar Power can be traced back to the 1960s when Dr. Peter Glaser of Arthur D. Little conceived the Solar Power Satellite (SPS) concept. At its core, the SPS envisions a colossal platform in geostationary orbit that continuously collects sunlight, converts it into microwaves or laser beams, and beams this energy to Earth. On our planet’s surface, a power-receiving facility converts these beams into electricity and hydrogen for practical applications.

The Unmatched Efficiency of SBSP

One of the most compelling advantages of SBSP is its unparalleled efficiency. A satellite in geosynchronous orbit receives five to fifteen times more solar energy annually than any terrestrial location. Unlike ground-based solar systems, SBSP faces no efficiency reductions due to the day-night cycle, seasonal variations, or weather conditions. This makes SBSP up to six times more efficient than comparable Earth-based technologies.

 

The Strategic Significance

Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, emphasizes that space-based solar panels are continuously illuminated, operating 24/7, 99% of the year. A single SBSP array can generate up to 250 megawatts and scale up to a staggering 5 gigawatts. To put this into perspective, New York City’s energy needs, which amount to around 20 gigawatts, could be met by a system comprised of just four 5-gigawatt SBSP arrays, illuminating the potential of SBSP to power entire cities.

As the world grapples with the challenges of climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, nations and private companies are eyeing SBSP as a strategic solution. Here’s why:

  1. Endless Clean Energy: SBSP has the potential to provide virtually limitless clean energy. It can meet the electricity needs of remote and off-grid areas, power electric vehicles, and even fuel industries with high energy demands.
  2. Reduced Environmental Impact: Unlike traditional power generation methods, SBSP produces minimal greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. This aligns with global efforts to combat climate change and reduce our carbon footprint.
  3. Energy Independence: Nations that master SBSP technology can achieve a level of energy independence, reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and geopolitically sensitive energy sources.
  4. Global Reach: SBSP can beam energy to virtually any location on Earth, making it a powerful tool for disaster relief, humanitarian missions, and remote infrastructure development.

In addition to providing constant renewable energy to the planet, a space solar power plant could, in theory, focus its beam outward and power spacecraft, obviating the need for solar cell wings and greatly increasing power levels and control accuracy.  That power could also be used in space to meet the energy demands of future space mining and resource extraction operations. NASA  is examining how space solar power could support robotic mining operations on the moon or asteroids–a stepping stone toward enabling long-term human space exploration and possible colonization of the solar system beyond Earth. The energy beams could also direct power to remote areas or even dissipate destructive weather systems like typhoons.

 

Beaming Energy to Earth: Microwaves vs. Lasers

SBSP can transmit energy to Earth using either microwaves or lasers. While microwaves are efficient and can provide over 1 gigawatt of energy to terrestrial receivers, laser systems produce 1-10 megawatts per satellite and would require deployment in constellations numbering in the hundreds or thousands to make a significant impact. Both methods hold great promise but come with their unique challenges and applications.

 

The Key Players

Several countries and private companies have already entered the SBSP race:

  1. China: China has been actively pursuing SBSP technology and aims to launch its first SBSP test satellite by 2025. The country recognizes the strategic importance of SBSP in its efforts to lead the world in renewable energy.
  2. USA: The United States, with its history of space exploration and innovation, is also investing in SBSP research and development. NASA and the Department of Energy are collaborating on initiatives to advance this technology.
  3. Japan: Japan has a long-standing interest in SBSP and is conducting experiments to transmit power wirelessly. The Japanese government views SBSP as a potential solution to its energy challenges.
  4. Private Companies: Companies like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are exploring commercial SBSP ventures. Their expertise in space technology positions them as key players in the industry’s growth.

Overcoming Technical Challenges: The Path Forward

However, despite its long-standing presence, this technology faces several formidable technical challenges. Chief among these obstacles is the need to identify a cost-effective and eco-friendly launch vehicle capable of transporting the solar power plant into space. Additionally, the monumental costs associated with in-orbit operation and construction pose significant challenges. One of the most daunting aspects of the endeavor is the sheer size and weight of the space-based solar power infrastructure, which far exceeds the current payload capacity of spacecraft. Many prior studies and experiments have highlighted the cost-prohibitive nature of this venture, demanding billions of dollars to transport a structure potentially spanning several kilometers and weighing thousands of tons. Furthermore, the intricacies of assembling such a colossal structure in space, one that could dwarf the International Space Station – itself about the size of a football field – have perplexed scientists.

In the realm of practical logistics, microwave-transmitting solar satellites must be positioned approximately 35,000 kilometers from Earth to optimize their functionality. This vast distance presents a substantial hurdle, as it renders timely or routine repairs virtually impossible. Furthermore, the expansive scale of these solar power stations may require coverage areas equivalent to a staggering 5 square miles, akin to 1,400 football fields. In contrast, laser-emitting solar satellites have a more modest generation capacity, necessitating the launch of hundreds or even thousands to make a substantial impact. The ambitious aim of microwave beaming systems is to supply upwards of 1 GW of energy to terrestrial receivers, sufficient to power a large city. Conversely, laser systems produce a range of 1-10MW per satellite and would theoretically be deployed in constellations numbering in the hundreds.

There is a trade-off between microwave and laser-based transmission systems in space-based solar power (SBSP). Microwaves offer longer transmission distances but require larger structures, while lasers provide precision but have lower power output. Laser systems produce modest power compared to microwave systems primarily due to factors like energy density, conversion efficiency, atmospheric absorption, and safety concerns. Laser beams are highly concentrated, which limits their total power output, and the conversion of sunlight into laser light involves multiple stages with efficiency losses. Laser beams are also more affected by atmospheric absorption than microwaves. While microwave-based SBSP systems are more efficient and safer, lasers are still explored for specific applications requiring precision and focused energy delivery.

Lightweight space solar panels have the potential to generate 1 kW of power per kilogram, requiring 4,000 metric tons of panels to produce 4 gigawatts of power in space. The energy captured by these panels would be transmitted back to Earth through wireless antennas. However, the economic feasibility of space-based solar power (SBSP) faces significant technical challenges. These challenges include synchronizing the phases of microwaves from billions of antennas on a single SBSP to create a precisely focused beam, addressing efficiency losses due to energy diffraction through water vapor in the atmosphere, and using lightweight materials for mirror structures to enable formation flight. Additionally, managing power generation and transmission via extremely high-voltage cables with minimal resistive losses is a crucial consideration.

While these technological hurdles loom large, the pursuit of space-based solar power remains a compelling endeavor, driven by its potential to revolutionize our approach to sustainable energy generation.

The realization of SBSP as a viable and sustainable energy source is not without hurdles. These include the high initial costs of launching and maintaining solar arrays in space, as well as the development of efficient wireless power transmission systems.

Technical challenges include launching and assembling massive solar arrays in space, developing efficient wireless power transmission systems, and ensuring minimal energy loss during transmission. Safety and regulatory concerns also need to be addressed. Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology, warned that the hazards potentially posed to humans, plants and animals by that process must be examined.

Addressing these challenges will require collaboration between nations, private companies, and research institutions.

The Strategic Race for Clean Energy

Space-Based Solar Power holds the key to a cleaner, more sustainable future. By harnessing the virtually unlimited power of the sun from space, we can transform the way we generate electricity, reduce our environmental footprint, and meet the world’s growing energy demands.

As the world seeks to replace fossil fuels with clean alternatives, the strategic race for SBSP has intensified. Major players such as the United States, Japan, China, and Russia are investing heavily in SBSP research and development. These nations recognize the strategic significance of SBSP, from achieving energy independence to its potential use in space exploration and colonization.

Ralph Nansen, a prominent advocate from the US-based organization Solar High, emphasizes the urgency for the United States to take a leading role in developing Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP). He underscores that the first entity to harness SBSP on a large scale will attain a dominant position in the global economy, akin to England’s influence during the industrial revolution due to coal.

One noteworthy endeavor in this domain is the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) innovative approach. They are constructing a groundbreaking “sandwich” module that combines photovoltaic panels to capture solar energy, an electronics system to convert it into radio frequency, and an antenna to efficiently transmit power to Earth. The NRL envisions assembling numerous such modules in space using robotics, a project already in progress within the NRL’s Space Robotics Group. The end goal is to create a highly potent satellite covering a kilometer in size, capable of delivering a substantial and consistent supply of remote power.

United States: Leading the Charge

The United States, alongside Japan, China, and Russia, has embarked on a substantial investment in Space Solar Power (SSP). NASA, in particular, is exploring SSP’s potential to support robotic mining operations on the moon and asteroids, laying the foundation for future human space exploration and potential colonization beyond Earth. The U.S. military is also interested in SSP for remote bases, disaster missions, and cost-saving in expeditionary missions. Private companies like Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin are collaborating with NASA to develop advanced solar arrays for extraterrestrial applications, emphasizing their commitment to this emerging technology.

China: A Rising Contender

China is aggressively pursuing SSP, recognizing its strategic significance. Researchers in China have narrowed the gap between themselves and leading countries in SSP research. They plan to launch small solar satellites as early as 2021, followed by larger plants capable of beaming energy back to Earth via lasers. China is actively using its newly-completed Tiangong space station to test key SSP technologies, including on-orbit assembly of modules. By 2050, China aims to have a full-sized, commercially viable space-based solar plant in operation, making it a strong contender in the SSP race.

China is at the forefront of pioneering space-based solar power (SBSP) technology, with ambitious plans to build the world’s first solar power station in space, heralding the prospect of virtually limitless and clean energy. The Chinese government, as reported in Science and Technology Daily, is actively exploring the potential of SBSP and is constructing a testing facility in Chongqing’s Bishan district to evaluate the feasibility of this innovative concept. This 33-acre test facility is dedicated to advancing space transmission technologies while studying the effects of beaming microwaves back to Earth on living organisms.

China is leveraging its newly completed Tiangong space station to test essential SBSP technologies. The Tiangong space station’s robotic arms, which are already operational on its exterior, will be employed for testing the on-orbit assembly of modules crucial for SBSP experiments, as highlighted by Yang Hong, the chief designer of the Tiangong space station.

In the realm of research and development, China has made significant strides in wireless energy transmission and has proposed various energy-collecting solutions. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation aims to launch small solar satellites capable of harnessing energy in space, with plans to subsequently test larger facilities with advanced functions like beaming energy back to Earth via lasers. A receiving station, slated for construction in Xian, will further augment this ambitious endeavor.

Looking ahead, China envisions the deployment of a full-scale, commercially viable space-based solar power plant by 2050. This vision is underpinned by China’s commitment to conducting a “Space high voltage transfer and wireless power transmission experiment” in low Earth orbit by 2028, followed by a second phase experiment in geostationary orbit in 2035. The final phases of the project, anticipated for 2050, aim to achieve energy generation capacities of 10 MW and 2 gigawatts. These monumental goals necessitate substantial advancements in power transmission, orbital assembly capabilities, beam steering accuracy, and transmission architecture.

China’s dedication to SBSP innovation is underscored by its completion of the world’s first full-link and full-system ground test system for SBSP, realized at Xidian University in June 2022. Furthermore, funding for research into the construction of kilometer-scale objects in orbit has been secured, a development that promises to address the intricate challenge of assembling colossal arrays for solar power collection and transmission.

China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) has unveiled plans for a 100kW SBSP demonstration, scheduled for low Earth orbit by 2025, followed by the deployment of a fully operational SBSP system in geostationary orbit by 2050. This visionary project envisions a satellite weighing over 10,000 lbs., surpassing anything previously placed into orbit, including the International Space Station. As China advances toward the realization of SBSP, its pursuit of this groundbreaking technology promises to transform the landscape of energy generation and propel progress across diverse fields, including energy, electricity, materials, and aerospace, as articulated by Wang, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Japan: Microwaves from Space

Japan, a pioneer in SSP research, is focusing on wireless microwave transmission of solar power from space. JAXA has already demonstrated successful microwave transmission experiments, and while practical use is expected in the 2030s, Japan’s roadmap envisions a 1-gigawatt commercial system by that time. Japan’s interest in SSP is partly driven by its quest for safe and sustainable energy sources following the Fukushima disaster.

Japan, spurred by the Fukushima disaster and its commitment to safe, sustainable energy solutions, is at the forefront of research into space-based solar power (SBSP). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a global leader in SBSP research, has laid out an ambitious technology roadmap that envisions a path to a 1-gigawatt commercial SBSP system by the 2030s, matching the output of a typical nuclear power plant.

JAXA has already demonstrated the feasibility of wireless microwave transmission of solar power in space. In a groundbreaking experiment conducted in March 2015, JAXA successfully beamed 1.8 kilowatts of electricity via microwave transmission over a distance of 55 meters to a precise target on a receiver. This transmitted microwave energy was efficiently converted into direct electrical current at the receiver’s end. While the ultimate goal is to establish microwave-transmitting solar satellites approximately 35,000 kilometers from Earth, which could generate up to one gigawatt of electricity with a ground-based receiver spanning roughly 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) in radius, it’s acknowledged that practical implementation may take several years, potentially into the 2030s. Importantly, the low-energy density of the transmitted microwaves ensures safety, minimizing the risk to wildlife and aircraft along their path, as confirmed by a JAXA spokesperson. Japan’s commitment to SBSP underscores its dedication to transforming the energy landscape and ensuring a sustainable, safe, and clean energy future.

Russia: Prototyping SSP

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is developing a working prototype of a 100-kilowatt SSP system. While no launch date has been announced, Russia’s interest in SSP signifies its involvement in the global race for space-based solar power.

UK, Europe:

In November 2020, the UK government initiated research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems, envisioning large solar power satellites that capture solar energy and convert it into high-frequency radio waves for safe transmission to ground-based receivers integrated with the electrical power grid. Led by Frazer-Nash Consultancy, the study explores the engineering and economic feasibility of this concept, examining its potential to provide affordable energy to consumers and the requisite technological advancements. Martin Soltau, Frazer-Nash’s space business manager, highlighted their efforts to evaluate leading international solar power satellite designs and outlined their plan to deploy a functional SBSP system by 2050. Recent developments in privately-led space ventures have significantly reduced the cost of rocket launches and the weight required for such an ambitious project, making space-based solar power more attainable than ever before.

In September 2022, engineers at European aerospace firm Airbus showcased a potential future in clean energy. They harnessed sunlight using solar panels, converted it into microwaves, and transmitted the energy across an aircraft hangar, where it was reconverted into electricity, illuminating a model city. While the demonstration delivered a modest 2 kilowatts over a distance of 36 meters, Europe is emerging as a hub for serious consideration of space solar power. The European Space Agency (ESA) commissioned two cost-benefit studies on space solar power, which indicated its potential competitiveness with ground-based renewables, even at a higher cost similar to nuclear power. ESA is taking the concept seriously, seeking funding from member states to assess technical challenges. If the results prove favorable, ESA intends to initiate a full-scale effort in 2025. With a budget ranging from €15 billion to €20 billion, ESA aims to deploy a megawatt-scale demonstration facility in orbit by 2030 and scale up to gigawatts, equivalent to a conventional power station, by 2040, paving the way for a sustainable energy future.

India: Emerging Interest

India has begun investing in a ‘solar mission’ and expressed interest in partnering with the United States on SSP. The UK, too, has commissioned research into SSP systems, considering engineering, economics, and affordability.

As countries worldwide recognize the need for sustainable energy sources and the strategic importance of SSP, a competitive global race is underway. Collaboration between nations and private enterprises is key to overcoming technical and economic challenges and realizing the potential of Space Solar Power as a revolutionary clean energy source.

 

Dual Use

Remote power has evident advantages for various sectors, particularly in scenarios where access to a traditional electric grid is challenging. One prominent beneficiary of this technology is the military, which can utilize remote power to energize bases in isolated locations, bolstering operational capabilities and reducing reliance on costly fuel sources.

Furthermore, remote power holds substantial promise for industries engaged in energy exploration, such as shale or Arctic expeditions. In these contexts, where conventional energy sources are scarce, remote power solutions can serve as a vital source of sustainable energy, facilitating critical operations far from civilization.

The potential benefits extend beyond military and energy sectors. The United States Military, recognizing the cost-saving potential, is actively exploring this concept. By harnessing solar power from space, they envision significant fuel cost savings and unprecedented flexibility in expeditionary missions. The ability to redirect solar power anywhere on the planet empowers them to adapt to diverse and dynamic operational requirements efficiently.

Additionally, remote power solutions, such as Solar Power Satellites (SPS), have immense utility in disaster relief missions. Portable rectennas can be rapidly deployed to capture microwave energy from space, converting it into essential electrical power. This agility in energy provision enhances disaster response capabilities, ensuring quick and efficient support in critical situations.

While the pursuit of an inexhaustible source of renewable energy is a noble endeavor in combating climate change, there are valid concerns regarding the potential militarization of lasers generated within a Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) system. The fundamental difference in the nature of coherent radiation emitted by lasers compared to the microwave or radio wave approach raises apprehensions.

Indeed, if weaponized, a high-power laser from an SBSP platform could unleash devastating destruction upon a city within a matter of minutes or hours, as cautioned by experts like Schubert. The positioning of a satellite in geostationary orbit affords it an unparalleled vantage point, effectively granting a tactical advantage akin to the ultimate “high ground.” Given the inherent vulnerabilities of any system to hacking, the prospect of allowing a 5 gigawatt laser in geostationary orbit becomes a matter of significant global concern. As nations recognize the risks and complexities associated with such formidable laser technologies, a thoughtful and international approach is essential to ensure the responsible use of SBSP while addressing security challenges.

 

The Future of Clean Energy

As the world races toward a more sustainable future, the pursuit of Space-Based Solar Power has taken center stage. This revolutionary technology has the potential to provide clean, abundant energy to people around the world while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and curbing the impact of climate change.  The journey to harnessing SBSP’s full potential is challenging, but the benefits are monumental—a cleaner Earth and a boundless source of renewable energy for generations to come. The strategic race for SBSP is not just about energy; it’s about shaping the future of our planet and securing a brighter, cleaner tomorrow for generations to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Resources also include

http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/1102/c90000-9288036.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/lovesick-cyborg/2017/09/30/4111/#.WkplrN-WY2w

https://www.greenmatch.co.uk/blog/2014/10/space-based-solar-power

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/03/asia/china-plans-solar-power-in-space-intl/

About Rajesh Uppal

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