USAF: The Air Force Is Building a Spacecraft That Will Beam Solar Power to Earth


Solar power from space could be a consequence of solar power used in space for other purposes.
The Air Force has a special spacecraft for gathering solar power, which will launch in 2024.
Solar above the clouds is more efficient, with higher exposure amounts and times.
Beaming solar power from outer space sounds like a Marvel movie plot, but space could remove barriers to solar acceptance that dominate the Earthbound discourse.

Could the secret to our energy future be solar panels above the clouds, or even above the Karman line altogether?

Besides the logistical challenges of even getting solar panels up in space, the benefits are pretty airtight, as CleanTechnica’s Tina Casey writes. There are no clouds to block or even reduce solar panel efficacy. They can pivot, maybe even completely freely, to maximize exposure to more sun over a longer time each day. The sunlight is more potent outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Right now, even the best solar panels are reaching something like 30 to 40 percent efficiency, and these are mostly cutting-edge prototypes developed by scientists for research—not the ones you can readily buy.

If you live somewhere with low light, you might be worried that solar panels aren’t for you, but these actually perform excellently in low light conditions. The high conversion efficiency 100 watt PV panel can charge 12v /24v batteries, and it comes with a portable folding suitcase. This one is easy to take on-the-go with you if you’re camping, and easy to store if you’re using it at home in case of a power outage.

If you want to really go all out, you can’t go wrong with Renology’s 10-piece, 300-watt solar panels. They’re capable of withstanding high winds and snow loads, they’re anti-reflective, and extremely versatile. These are ideal for residential or commercial rooftops, but they’re compatible with a ground-mount as well.

Anyone new to solar panels should start with a good kit, like this one by Renology. You’ll get everything you need in one, including an 100W solar panel, 30A PWM negative ground charge controller, MC4 connectors, a 8Ft 10 AWG tray cable, and mounting Z brackets for an RV or boat. It can fully charge a 50Ah Battery from 50% in 3 hours.

That means the huge advantage of higher-up sunlight would directly translate, perhaps even to the difference between feasible solar and not. Again, though, this is without the logistics of putting panels into space.

And the technology to “beam” power is pretty established at this point, relying on directed mirrors and receiver panels that focus energy into beams that act, basically, like wireless wires through the air. The right kind of solar panels paired with storage could periodically beam power to specific places without losing notable energy.

Earlier this month, the Air Force Research Laboratory unveiled a component coyly named Helios (after the original Greek sun god) for its forthcoming Arachne spacecraft, the main part of the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) project. Arachne will launch in 2024.

Helios will gather power for other spacecraft, making it an essential research piece as well as proof of concept for some big ideas NASA has about traveling to the moon and subsequently to Mars.

But Arachne is also a working model of what solar power for Earth from space could eventually look like. The Air Force reports:

“Arachne will demonstrate emerging technologies that support the ability to convert solar energy to radio frequency (RF) power, using innovative ‘sandwich tiles’ as well as the feasibility of transmitting that energy to the ground and converting it to usable power.”

We’ll likely learn a great deal from the use of solar power in space and then decide if the experiments make sense to extend to Earth. Solar is critical to our long-term spaceflight plans because of its plentiful and completely renewable nature, saving vital weight and reducing the use of volatile chemicals on already risky flights.

Does this mean we’ll see solar beamed from space on radio waves within the next decade? Well, the only sure thing about the energy landscape in the 2020s is that we really have no idea. The end of fossil fuels will mean a huge wall against which some of the world’s most talented people are currently throwing all their idea spaghetti. And it could be that solar from space is something that sticks.


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