Solar Farm in Space? European Space Agency Contemplates the Idea

Highlights :

  • Scientists are propogating an ambitious plan to harness solar energy from orbit to power the planet. At a two-day conference in Paris, the European Space Agency (ESA), which the UK is a part of, is debating ideas for building a solar farm in space.
  • To transmit microwave energy to Earth, analogous to the high-frequency radio waves found in a microwave oven, the SOLARIS project collects sunlight over a large area in space.

Scientists are on an ambitious plan to harness solar energy from orbit to power the planet. At a two-day conference in Paris, the European Space Agency (ESA), which the UK is a part of, is debating ideas for building a solar farm in space.

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To transmit microwave energy to Earth, analogous to the high-frequency radio waves found in a microwave oven, the SOLARIS project collects sunlight over a large area in space. The beams would be captured by a large number of antennas on Earth, and the energy would be transformed into power.

Satellites in Earth's orbit would capture sunlight and convert it to microwaves

Satellites in Earth’s orbit would capture sunlight and convert it to microwaves

The benefits of space-based solar power (SBSP) technology are enormous because microwaves can pass through clouds in the atmosphere of Earth and because sunlight in space is more powerful and available all the time, not just during the day.

However, the UK also has unique plans of its own. To help the UK achieve its goal of net zero, £6 million in funding has been made available for the development of Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) technology. In Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) technology, geosynchronous satellites are used for collecting sunlight, harnessing it to produce solar power and transmitting the generated power back to Earth using Wireless power transmission (WPT), safely and reliably.

An “operational system could be constructed by 2040,” and it could provide “a large share of the UK’s energy demands by the early 2040s,” according to a study carried out by consultants Frazer-Nash on behalf of the government.

Airbus has demonstrated microwave beaming on a small scale

Airbus has demonstrated microwave beaming on a small scale

However, it would cost a fortune—up to £17.3 billion. Payload systems lead at the UK Space Agency, Dr. Mamatha Maheshwarappa, stated to Sky News: “A public-private partnership is required for this project. Some of the first de-risking initiatives can be funded by the government, but private investments will eventually be required to support it.”

On a small scale, the SBSP theory has previously been proven. In September, Airbus created green hydrogen and brought to life a model metropolis by beaming microwaves 36 meters between two sites, but there are also difficulties.

“If satellites were to collect the sunlight, they would need to measure around 2 kilometers across to produce the same power level as a nuclear power plant,” said Jean-Dominique Coste from the Airbus team.

Although experts believe it would still be economically viable even if only 10% of the energy reached Earth, the ESA acknowledges that significant amounts of energy could be wasted during the conversion and “beaming” process.

In the meantime, researchers will need to do experiments to make sure there are no hazards to plants and animals to allay health worries from projecting microwaves into the atmosphere, an effect that hasn’t been completely examined.

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