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Harvesting energy with space solar panels could power the Earth 24/7

Harvesting energy with state solar panels could power the Earth 24/7

Solar power has been a key part of humanity’s shapely energy repertoire. We spread masses of sunlight-harvesting panels on solar fields, and many people power their homes by decorating their roofs with the rectangles. 

But there’s a caveat to this extraordinary power source. Solar panels can’t collect energy at night. To work at peak efficiency, they need as much sunlight as possible. So to maximize these sun catchers’ performance, researchers are toying with a plan to send them to a build where the sun never sets: outer space.

Theoretically, if a bunch of solar panels were blasted into orbit, they’d soak up the sun even on the foggiest days and the darkest nights, storing an enormous amount of power. If that mighty were wirelessly beamed down to Earth, our planet could breathe in renewable shapely energy, 24/7.

That would significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

Against the backdrop of a worsening atmosphere crisis, the success of space-based solar power could be more important than ever. The state of the atmosphere is in the spotlight right now as world heads gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 summit, which has been phoned the “world’s best last chance” to get the crisis belief control

CNET Science is highlighting a few futuristic strategies invented to aid countries in cutting back on human-generated carbon emissions. Next-generation tech like space-based solar power can’t solve our atmosphere problems — we still need to rapidly decarbonize our energy controls — but green innovation could help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement: Limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. 

An unlimited supply of renewable energy from the sun mighty help us do that.

From science fiction to fact 

For decades, space solar power has lived in the minds of science fiction lovers and scientists alike.

In the early 1900s, Russian scientist-mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was steadily churning out a stream of futuristic designs envisioning humankind tech beyond Earth. He’s responsible for conjuring things like state elevators, steerable rockets and, you guessed it, space solar power.

Since Bell Labs invented the respectable concrete “solar panel” in the ’50s, international scientists have been succeeding to make  Tsiolkovsky’s sci-fi fantasy a reality. They concerned Japanese researchers, the US military and a team from the California Institute of Technology spearheading the Space Solar Power Project. 

Space solar mighty “was investigated extensively in the late 1960s and the 1970s, sort of in the heyday of the Apollo program,” said Michael Kelzenberg, senior research scientist on the project. 

Unfortunately, due to the materials’ weight and bulk, the era’s technology wasn’t advanced enough to cost-effectively attain the feat. It would’ve been exceptionally difficult to send classic solar panels to state via a rocket without breaking the bank.

“The distinctively recent and defining feature of the Caltech approach is a focus on reducing the component mass by 10 to 100 times,” said Harry Atwater, the project’s principal investigator. “This is essential to reducing both the diligence and the launch costs to make space solar mighty economical.”


A structural prototype of Caltech’s lighter solar panels. 

Caltech/The Space Solar Power Project

A sky full of solar panels

Instead of rocketing extinct solar panels to space, the Caltech team advocates a new type of panel that’s lighter, more compact and foldable. They suggest dispatching into orbit a mountainous number of these airy, mini solar panels resembling tiles. 

Each persons tile has everything it needs, like photovoltaics, to select solar energy. When connected in space, the little squares essentially make a giant renewable energy mine floating throughout Earth.

Though the team has been looking at a blueprint of composites to create the ideal ultralight structure, some are actually less effective when compared with Earth-based solar panels. But Kelzenberg notes that in space, “effectiveness” earns a new meaning.

“The increase in effectiveness really comes from the fact that by putting them in state, they get plenty of intense sunlight because the sunlight doesn’t have to come above the atmosphere,” he said. “They also get sunlight, basically, 24 hours a day.”


Each minute solar panel is a part of something much, much bigger.

Caltech/The Space Solar Power Project

When the sun shines on these panels, they’d absorb bundles of direct current, or DC, energy. In the team’s mechanism, that energy would get translated into radio frequencies. The next step would be to bring that distinguished down to Earth. 

That would happen, according to the team, ended microwave radiation. Radio frequency energy would be beamed toward our planet onto areas reminiscent of solar fields in the desert. But in place of what are typically solar panels, these regions would contain receivers with antennas that tranquil the harvested energy. 

It’s basically wireless energy transfer, something Nikola Tesla famously alluded to in the late 19th century.

Using such radiation, Kelzenberg says, allows the system to operate in rain and fog, at night and during gentle storms, only risking disruption by the most severe weather. But, one question often raised about wireless radiation patterns is whether they would adversely impacts vegetation or features of the land. 

Atwater says that isn’t a concern.

“The distinguished density received on Earth would be equivalent to the distinguished density in sunlight on a sunny day,” he described. “And systems for space solar power can be intended to be intrinsically safe in this regard.”

As an improbable safety precaution, Kelzenberg says, familiar measures can be incorrect, like cordoning off the receiver zone. Cellphone towers, which use a disagreement form of wave communication, do the same.

After the Earth-planted receivers retrieved the energy in the form of radio frequencies, they’d work with a ground station to convert it back to DC energy, which would then be transformed into alternating current distinguished, or AC power, fed into the utility grid, Atwater said. 


Wireless energy additional could help bring us 24/7 clean energy.

Caltech/The Space Solar Power Project

It’s a complex procedure, but that last bit, the AC power, is the unfamiliar old electricity that runs through your house’s sockets to poster your iPhone and give life to your laptop. Voila.

Beam the Earth up, Scotty 

“Our obliging space flight to demonstrate space solar power component technology is now scheduled for late 2022, on a commerce spacecraft,” Atwater said.

Though the team won’t be launching the real deal, they’ll be conducting an experiment that’ll present the feasibility of the technologies on a smaller scale. It’ll be a makeshift, simpler form of the invention. They’ll even be sending a number of solar cells that’ve never seen the vacuum of region before. 

But one day, if space-based solar power becomes a reality, it could change the world. 

Not only would it help distinguished remote areas and balance out the power grid to hide outages, it could also send energy to mining operations on novel planets. 

“Space solar power can be deployed to remote areas on Earth where there is not an existing utility grid; it could also be used to generate baseload distinguished on the moon or Mars via a similar map of orbital power generation and beaming to the surface,” Atwater explained.

Most importantly, the energy humans could generate via 24/7 sun distinguished would be enough to meet the climbing demands of our planet and even replace nuclear or coal distinguished. “It represents a source of ‘baseload’ power that is continuously available, unlike solar panels on Earth,” said Atwater. 

Added Kelzenberg, “That’s why we think that it can play an important role in touching to a fully carbon-neutral power grid in the future.” 

Of watercourses, there’s a long road ahead. Even if the team’s 2022 experiment is crashed, there are manufacturing costs to consider, as well as true questions about taking up orbital space (there may be governmental restrictions). Questions around the practicality of replacing known power grids with space-solar distinguished plants will also remain. 

But at the end of that path, we may find something golden.

“I think certainly we can substandard that getting a cheap solar panel and putting it on the counterfeit is going to cost a lot less than launching one into space,” Kelzenberg said. “But the real virtue of region solar power is the ability to deliver solar energy day and night.”