“Stupendous” –China’s Leap to Space-Based Solar Power: ‘Will Beam Sun’s Energy Back to Earth’

Solar Flares

 

China is swooping in on a global scale to fill a vacuum NASA has abandoned. Space stations and satellites use solar panel arrays for their power needs, but NASA abandoned the concept of stand-alone space solar after some study decades ago, ignoring the JPL’s John Mankins’ novel ideas that could transform the way humans use technology in space.

“You could beam electricity from Canada to the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America from a satellite at equator,” Mankins said as an example of China’s global potential. “Roughly one billion people live in the Americas.”

“You don’t have to deal with the day and night cycle, and you don’t have to deal with clouds or seasons, so you end up having eight to nine times more power available to you,” said Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and director of the university’s Space Solar Power Project.

“If you can dramatically lower the cost of space solar, you can take over most of the energy market of the world,” said Mark Hopkins, a member of the National Space Society board of directors and former Rand Corp. executive.

“If you look at the next 50 years, the demand for energy is stupendous,” Mankins said. “If you can harvest sunlight up where the sun is always shining and deliver it with essentially no interruptions to Earth — and you can do all that at an affordable price — you win.”

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Details of China’s plans have not been made public, reports MACH, but Mankins says one way to harness solar power in space would be to launch tens of thousands of “solar satellites” that would link up to form an enormous cone-shaped structure that orbits about 22,000 miles above Earth, covered with the photovoltaic panels needed to convert sunlight into electricity, which would be converted into microwaves and beamed wirelessly to ground-based receivers — giant wire nets measuring up to four miles across.

 

Solar Satellites

 

Mankins estimates that such a solar facility could generate a steady flow of 2,000 gigawatts of power. The largest terrestrial solar farms generate only about 1.8 gigawatts.

Mankins’ interplanetary musings went beyond the way solar is already used to power satellites and the International Space Station. During a 25-year career at NASA and CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he devised multiple concepts to extend the use of solar in space, among them a solar-powered interplanetary transport vehicle and a space-based power system.

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Mankin held major research positions at NASA during the 1990s and 2000s, including overseeing the $800 million Exploration Systems Research and Technology group. Mankins — who now runs his own private aerospace firm, Artemis Innovation Management Solutions — had the task of figuring out whether there was a way to deliver electricity to the planet by beaming it from space reports CNBC. It’s an idea that could fundamentally reshape the idea of the utility business — and give control over it, on a global scale, to whichever world power gets there first.

When the news recently broke that the idea — abandoned decades ago by NASA — was coming back to life with a big push from government, it was cause for excitement says CNBC. “But it isn’t NASA finally backing the idea. It’s the Chinese government.”

China’s ambitions in space rival that of the United States. Its two main objectives were originally human spaceflight (accomplished in 2003) and a permanent Chinese space station, which is coming closer to reality — it announced in early March that a manned space station similar to ISS is now on schedule for 2022, earlier than expected.

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China recently announced that within the next decade it expects to finish the high voltage power transmission and wireless energy tests that would be needed for a space-based solar power system laying the foundation for the launch of small- to medium-sized solar power projects in the stratosphere to generate electricity between 2021 and 2025, followed by a space-based solar power station that can generate at least a megawatt of electricity in 2030, and a commercial-scale solar power plant in space by 2050.

“The dramatically stated interest on the part of the Chinese will do a lot to engender interest,” Mankins said. “Around a decade ago the Chinese started working seriously on this, and about five years ago they started coming to international meetings. Before that, they were in the dark. Now they are coming out of the shadows and talking much more openly about this. There is absolutely progress from the Chinese at this point. This is not posturing; this is a real plan from serious organizations with revered scientists in China.”

A space-based solar power station would capture the sun’s energy that never makes it to the planet and use laser beams to send the energy back to Earth to meet energy demand needs. China said in a recent announcement about the project that a big advantage of space-based solar power is its ability to offer energy supply on a constant basis and with greater intensity than terrestrial solar farms without their intermittency — that refers to the fact that the sun isn’t shining and the wind is not blowing 24-hours a day, limiting the periods of time during which these projects can be a source of power generation.

Space-based solar would not only offer a solution to intermittency, says CNBC, but also delivery. Electricity generated in space and near the equator could be beamed almost anywhere across the globe, except for the poles.

A NASA spokeswoman said it is not currently studying space-based solar power for use on Earth. It is exploring several advanced power and energy technologies to enable long-duration human exploration of the Moon and Mars, such as its Kilopower project, a small, lightweight nuclear fission system that could power future outposts on the Moon to support astronauts, rovers and surface operations. Next year, this project is expected to transition from ground-based testing to an in-space demonstration mission.

“There is a reason birds like to sit on utility wires,” observes Mankins about are significant risks for the planet that need to be considered, including an increase in temperature and unintended consequences for various forms of life. But it is no different that worries about UV rays, and the concerns are “not known showstoppers.”

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The Daily Galaxy via CNBC and NBC MACH 

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