SOLAR PANELS IN SPACE: A VISION THAT WILL BECOME A REALITY

As the energy needs of the human civilization increases on a daily basis and fossil fuels continue to deplete at a rapid rate, humans are seeking to invest more money into renewable sources of energy than ever before. At the forefront of all of this is our sun, which offers a near limitless amount of energy. However, we are not very good at harnessing this energy with our current technology and we will require solar panels in space to capture a larger amount of the sun’s energy.

WE HARNESS A VERY SMALL AMOUNT OF SOLAR ENERGY

The Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere deflects a large portion of the solar energy it receives. This is beneficial as all that extra high-energy radiation would be detrimental to life on Earth. However, that also means the amount of energy we can harvest from the sun is much greater beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Currently, the Earth receives more solar energy in an hour than humans consume in a year. Imagine how much more energy we would have if we captured even a fraction more of that output by sending solar panels out to space!

HYPOTHESIZED FUTURE TECHNOLOGY

We would need to build devices in space that efficiently harness solar energy, convert it to electrical energy, and send it back to Earth. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Currently, scientists hypothesize that microwave power transmission and laser power beaming are two types of technology that humans could develop in the reasonably near future to begin this process. However, any technology that will actually allow us to build space panels is very far away and a lot more research is needed before viable methods can be developed.

The process is not as simple and send up solar panels that are currently used by homeowners, businesses, and the government. These panels are not built to withstand the atmospheric pressure they will face when exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. In addition it is unclear how humans could potentially fix these solar panel satellites when inevitable repairs are required. For comparison, the International Space Station currently orbits at 400km above Earth’s surface while this proposed solar panel technology would be put nearly 90 times higher. Space-based robot repairmen are a possible solution

The idea is to put the hypothesized panels in geostationary orbit, which is about 35,000 kms above Earth’s surface, to capture energy before it reaches Earth’s atmosphere and has a chance to break down solar energy. Alternatively there are models to place such satellites on the surface of Mars or the Moon and then beam the energy back to Earth.

IS ANYONE DEVELOPING IT?

Currently, China and Japan are the actively pursuing space-based solar power to meet their rising energy needs. Both the countries hope to have working models of the technology within the next 50 years. The Japan Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully beamed 1.8 kW of energy 50m to a tiny receiver, showcasing that they have the basic technology to achieve their goals by 2050.

Fossil fuels are depleting and are estimated to completely disappear sometime during this century. In order to become a true space-faring civilization, we will need to harness the energy output of our star – the Sun. This has been the dream of science fiction writers for years and it will hopefully become a reality this century.

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