Solar energy is the most reliable source of energy that human beings can exploit without thinking twice. Today throughout the world, solar energy is being utilized, even in places where the electricity supply might never reach. There is no requirement for huge plants to create solar power. Nor is a huge wiring system required. You need solar panels and a solar cell and you are ready for creating your electricity. No huge electricity bills will trouble you anymore. The only problem though with solar energy is that it cannot be used in cloudy weather or night. Also, the solar panels can be set up in a limited area. But the solution to this problem might be coming soon.
The AFRL(Air Force Research Laboratory) of America is working on their project Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research(SSPIDR) which may change the entire landscape of solar power development. The AFRL aims to launch its power beaming experiment in 2024.
How would the experiment work?
The AFRL aims to launch the Arachne spacecraft which is a small-scale vehicle that will carry the platform of the experiment to outer space. As it reaches outer space, the scientists controlling it would open up a sunlight-harvesting satellite which will be sent to space in the Arachne. The satellite will set up and its highly efficient photovoltaic cells or solar cells will absorb solar energy from the sun. Then this Solar energy will be converted to radio waves and the radio waves will be beamed onto a receiving station.
What is the need for such an expensive experiment?
The main reason why the AFRL is working on such an expensive experiment is not to develop this technology for common people to use. The main reason for this experiment is for military use. The most dangerous part of a military ground operation is to maintain reliable power in the forward operating base. A forward operating base is meant to launch sustained combat operations independently to support strategic goals. It may contain a hospital, an airfield, or a machine shop and therefore there need to be enough powers such bases to counter critical situations. Thus if the AFRL succeeds in its experiment it would be a big advantage for the ground military operation of the US.
Why a three-year wait for the experiment?
There are five technologies that AFRL has to work on before they launch the Arachne.
- Energy collection with high-grade photovoltaic cells.
- Beam shaping or focusing the radio signals to the Earth.
- Different parts of the spacecraft and the satellite.
- Thermal development of solar power collection in space.
Once they are ready with all these technologies they will launch their experiment.
China’s plans to beat America by building the first Space Solar Power Station
China and America have been competing in a race to beat each other for a long time now. While America has only planned an experiment now, China has already started working towards setting up the first space solar power station by 2050. In 2019 an article in Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Ministry of science and technology confirmed this news. The power system will orbit the Earth at 36,000 kilometers and provide unaltered solar energy without disruption from bad weather or night. Though only time will tell who wins.
Even though AFRL does not look to develop such a system for operation but they aim to improve the technology for future use. This experiment though might pave the way for a wide number of such space solar power generation systems that will be launched in the future by different countries. Solar power looks to be the future energy source. Though today it has limited use in our lives, maybe one day it will replace all other sources of energy. Till then we can only use the resources of non-renewable energy and save them for our future generations.