Gigantic solar-powered space stations are on the radar of China, Japan and the European Space Agency, which is considering funding projects that could see solar energy “radiated” to Earth.
In a move that upsets the battle against climate change and the use of fossil fuels, space solar power plants would be able to float in orbit and collect and transmit energy all day.
In recent years, the world has seen a significant spread of renewable technologies such as wind and solar, and battery solutions have enabled homes and businesses to use almost exclusively renewable sources for a certain period of time. The challenge remains that any prolonged period of low insolation, prolonged cloud cover and rain and / or no wind limits the production of renewable energy products.
So while the prospect of space stations providing a continuous flow of solar energy to Earth might seem like something out of a James Cameron film, improved technologies and cost reductions made that prospect something ESA could actually fund in. future that China already has ‘Project Omega’ which hopes to achieve this by 2050.
Believe it or not, the concept of solar stations in space began in the 1920s
Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a pioneer of astronautics theory and is considered one of the founding fathers of modern space travel and the Soviet space program. Even then, he dreamed big after growing up reading the science fiction work of Jules Verne (author of Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea).
Tsiolkovsky achieved many firsts in his career, including being the first to state the correct theory of rocket power in a scientific paper published in 1903. He proposed theories including multistage rockets and liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants used as fuel that would ultimately be become a reality. He also had many views and ideas too big for the 1920s and the limited technologies available, but his theory that solar-powered space stations may one day become a reality has been explored by many ever since.
How realistic are solar-powered space stations in the near future?
There is a big reason why an idea born a century ago didn’t materialize: practicality. Although the technology advanced in surprising new ways during that time, the process of transporting the large hardware elements into the space where they would be assembled is still too cost-prohibitive.
Despite technological advances, to make a solar-powered space station viable, it would probably have to be 10 km2, roughly the same size as 1,400 football fields. The logistics of transporting that volume of materials into space and assembling it would be astronomical.
The second – and perhaps most important – challenge is how the energy collected by the sun would be relayed back to the Earth. The current theoretical plan would involve transforming electricity from solar cells into energy waves and using electromagnetic fields to transfer them to an antenna on Earth. Currently, this technology is in its infancy and most of the power is lost during transmission. So perhaps Tsiolkovsky’s dream is still far away.