Beaming solar power back to earth

Scientists are working on a space-based solar power station that would capture sunlight and then use microwaves or lasers to beam the energy back to earth.

Aerospace engineers at Strathclyde University in Glasgow are working on components of a multinational project to build space-based solar energy systems that can beam power back to the earth -- day or night.

The idea is to launch a power station into space that will concentrate the sun onto solar arrays and then use microwaves or lasers to send the energy anywhere in the world. Massimiliano Vasile, who is leading the project, says initially smaller satellites would be used to generate enough energy for a small village. This application would be ideally suited for sending energy to remote regions or to disaster areas.

The aim is to eventually put a large enough structure in space that could gather energy that would be capable of powering a large city, Vasile (pictured right) said in a press release issued by the university.

The project, which is part of a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts study, is still in its early phases. Progress has been made, notably in space construction and design.

One of the primary challenges of space-based solar is getting a large power station structure up there. Researchers at the university are tackling that very problem, with the development of a super lightweight spinning net that could be the foundation of a solar satellite.

The so-called "space web" experiment was carried on a rocket from the Arctic Circle to the edge of space and demonstrated that larger structures could be built on top of this lightweight net. The next stage, called SAM or Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane, will test an ultra-light cellular structure that can change shape once deployed, the university said.

The structure is made of cells that self-inflate in a vacuum and can change their volume independently through nanopumps. The cells could transform the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it onto solar arrays. In theory, assembling thousands of small individual cell units could be used to build large space systems, Vasile said.

Photo: NASA; University of Strathclyde, Glasgow


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