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NASA Researching Solar Power Satellites To Beam Electricity To Earth

Solar satellite

NASA has given initial funding to develop a project involving a satellite that could harvest solar energy and beam it down to Earth to be used in our electricity grid.

This is not a new idea, the possibility doing this in one form or another has been around for some years, but this is the first concept that has garnered enough interest to attract funding for further development. The initial funding will be used for a feasibility and proof of concept study. The concept has been proposed by former NASA engineer John Mankins, now with Artemis Innovation Management Solutions.

Solar satellite - NASA

If the structure of the satellite looks familiar to you, that’s because Mankins has taken a bio-mimetic approach to the design; that is, the design is based on the structure and function of biological systems. As you can see, the structure looks quite a lot like a flower, and uses the petals (many small mirrors) to direct sunlight to attached solar cells.

It has been proposed that the solar cells will then convert the energy to microwaves, which will be beamed to a receiving station back on Earth.

Part of the contraint on the project would be to keep costs down. This could be achieved by using small, lightweight, thin–filmed mirrors and solar cells. In addition, because of its component-based construction, costs would be lower than previously proposed solar power satellite concepts.

If development of the concept goes well, a next stage would probably see the construction of an small, inexpensive version of the solar satellite launched in a near Earth orbit. If that worked out, it would be followed by a full scale version.

I hope the project does work out, as it would be a great technological achievement to have a full scale version up there in orbit delivering power back to Earth. No doubt it would not be anything like the full solution needed to fulfil the world’s renewable energy hopes and dreams, but a project like this could apparently deliver as much as tens of thousands of megawatts of power.

We’ll be watching this project with great interest.

Image credits: John Mankins
Via Physorg and NASA

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous

    “in principle” this is a reasonable idea, and it has been used in the fiction a couple of times.

    My two biggest concerns are:
    1) What are the effects of beaming that much power as microwaves through the atmosphere? Sure, you could tune the frequency to avoid massive heat transfer to most of the atmosphere (Like your kitchen microwave  is tuned to the frequency that is best absorbed by water), but I would be surprised if you could avoid _everything_, so we’d get at least some transmission losses as heat into the air.
    1a) A related concern is the need to maintain permanent air traffic restrictions around the beam paths to avoid the risks of catastrophic energy transfer into an aircraft. or wildlife: Opponents of wind turbines cite bird deaths already.  Imagine their reaction to ‘instant charbroiled duck’?
    2) Security and safety of the ground receiver sites. Can they be safely controlled so that the beam shuts off if it swings off of the receiver? And _that_ much power flowing through relatively isolated receiver stations just screams ‘point-failure-source’.  This site has previously talked about the desirability of a more distributed electrical grid, while this project is the ultimate in centralisation.

    Those said, I do like the idea. I particularly like this version’s modular nature, the way it can be built up over time. And because it catches the light iut in space, with suitable planning, it could also be made to serve as an increasingly effective “Solar Sunshade”, reducing the amount of sunlight reachng the surface in one of those outrageously optimistic geoengineering proposals.

    Oh, there are other thoughts floating out there, like cost comparison between this and more, smaller terrestrial solar plants (like the one in Spain); or the requirement for relatively scares space in geosync orbit for something that, by it’s very nature, is going to be very large; Something big enough to be useful, is probably going to be big enough to be visible, so there’re also the ‘visual pollution’ arguments; maintenance (and construction, FTM) given the paltry state of our surface-to-orbit infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

  • Gilbertsgrape

    It could put tanning salons out of business!!

  • Gilbertsgrape

    and it looks like a weapon fit for the death star…!

  • Anonymous

    Check out the SF novel “Live Free or Die” by John Ringo.
    He uses a glorified version of this as a system defence weapon.

  • http://www.the9billion.com/ John Johnston

    All great points you make Michael. 

    We’ll have to see how the project develops to see how all those issues are dealt with. It’s true that this site frequently talks about the desirability of a more distributed electrical grid, and distributed power generation – let’s call it a worldwide “Enernet”. Personally, I (founder of the site) definitely favour a scenario of eventually generating an abundant amount of renewable power needed by humanity in this way, and I think it’s completely doable over time. 

    However, I still think an “all of the above” innovation phase can’t hurt, but not in Obama’s “all of the above” sense, with a huge amount of fossil fuels in the mix. Let’s call it a phase in which a thousand flowers of innovation are allowed to bloom, and of course there could be surprise advances along the way. 

    Realistically, there will probably still be quite a bit of centralised power in the mix in many parts of the world, for decades yet, as a network of truly distributed power generation develops. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take some time for nearly every building to become a mini-power plant for instance, and for power to be stored on-site, and in many other places in the grid. It could take 40-50 years for this to fully develop. It took a while for the industrial revolution to get going. This is absolutely on that scale. 

    Having said that, the development of the Internet went quite well and fast as it gained momentum, and we’ll be using the lessons and technology of the Internet to build the new distributed network for power :)