Caltech Tests Space-Based Solar Power

space satellite SBSP donald giannatti Wj1D qiOseE unsplash Caltech Tests Space-Based Solar Power

Caltech tests space-based solar power

Solar power is clean, renewable, and can provide abundant energy when harvested correctly—particularly in space, where solar power is more intense and consistent than on Earth. Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recently unveiled a new technology designed to do just that: harvest solar power from space. Their first launch will focus on testing various technologies that will enable future Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) systems.

Caltech's Space Based Solar Power can be transmitted to receivers anywhere in the world. Image is of a large satellite receiver dish in the desert at sunset.
Caltech’s Space Based Solar Power can be transmitted to receivers anywhere in the world. Image: Unsplash

What is space-based solar power?

SBSP is the conversion of sunlight to electricity outside of Earth’s atmosphere. For SBSP to become a practical reality, a new way to collect and convert solar energy must be developed. Current photovoltaic cell types are too weak and inefficient to be used for SBSP. Caltech’s new solar harvester aims to develop a system that can efficiently collect and convert solar energy.

The potential benefits of SBSP are immense. With no atmospheric interference, solar panels in space can absorb far more sunlight than those on Earth. The power generated would be constant and reliable, making it an ideal energy source for both developed and developing countries. Additionally, because there is no environmental impact, SBSP will provide a clean and sustainable energy source for generations.

How does Caltech’s new solar harvester work?

In just one year, an 800-meter wide array of solar panels on satellites orbiting above Earth could generate the same amount of energy as the entire planet’s remaining oil supplies. To send the power down to Earth, high-energy lasers or directed microwaves could transmit the energy with 80 percent efficiency to strategically located receivers and provide clean power worldwide to almost any location with little to no environmental impact.

Challenges of SBSP

As with any new technology, several challenges are associated with implementing SBSP. 

  1. Technology: The first challenge is technological. Currently, there is no proven method for collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it back to Earth. This means that a working SBSP system still needs to be developed, which Caltech hopes to achieve with its current solar harvester.
  2. Cost: The second challenge is economic. SBSP systems will be expensive to build and maintain, and it is unclear whether they can generate enough electricity to justify the cost. In addition, any country or company implementing SBSP will need to find customers to buy the electricity, which could prove problematic if it is too expensive.
  3. Politics: The third challenge is political. Given the high cost and risks associated with SBSP, it is unlikely that any government would be willing to invest the necessary resources without some international agreement in place. However, this might not be too big of a hurdle in our current state of urgency to address global climate change.

Implementing SBSP will be a daunting task. However, when successful, it will provide an unlimited supply of clean energy to help address some of the most pressing challenges facing our planet today.

Why it is important

The new solar harvester developed by Caltech is a truly revolutionary technology that has the potential to change the way we generate energy in space and on Earth. SBSP could help us reach our 1.5-degree sustainability goals sooner, promoting a healthier environment. The development of this technology by Caltech helps opens up an exciting new avenue for research and exploration in the field of renewable energy sources – one that could ultimately lead to significant progress toward global environmental protection.

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