One of the perks of life in the era of accelerated technological advancement is reading stories like this one. Researchers at a Japanese firm are working on harnessing the power of the sun…from outer space. IEEE Spectrum reports:
[S]pace-based solar power could at last become a reality—and within 25 years, according to a proposal from researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The agency, which leads the world in research on space-based solar power systems, now has a technology road map that suggests a series of ground and orbital demonstrations leading to the development in the 2030s of a 1-gigawatt commercial system—about the same output as a typical nuclear power plant.
Here’s how JAXA envisions this plan might work: Satellites in geosynchronous orbit could use photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity, which would then be converted into microwaves beamed back to collecting stations on earth, and then finally converted back in to electricity. Simple, right?JAXA has set its sights on getting this system up and running in just 25 years, but given solar energy’s terrestrial track record, you’ll forgive us if we’re skeptical. This project requires strong, durable, extremely light-weight materials. It needs a mechanism which the satellite could use to focus these microwaves continuously on the right spot. (Note: We aren’t talking about a superweapon waiting to fall in the hands of a supervillain. The microwaves “wouldn’t even be intense enough to heat your coffee.”) And, of course, it needs funding—lots and lots of funding—because launching things in to space isn’t cheap.There’s plenty that could go wrong here, but this kind of outside-the-box—or outside-the-planet—thinking is what we’ll need to meet the growing energy needs of humanity in a sustainable fashion. Space-based solar power solves one of its ground-based cousin’s biggest problems: intermittency. On earth, solar panels can’t produce electricity at night, but in geosynchronous orbit, these panels could produce power “nearly 24 hours a day.” It may be more fiction than science at the moment, but a near-constant supply of renewable energy is certainly a dream worth chasing.