China says it is working to develop a solar energy plant in space that could one day beam enough power back to Earth to light up an entire city.
If scientists can overcome the formidable technical challenges, the project would represent a monumental leap in combating the Earth’s addiction to dirty power sources which worsen air pollution and global warming.
A space-based solar power station could also provide an alternative to the current generation of earthbound and relatively ineffective renewable energy sources.
Scientists had previously thought space solar plants (SSPs) would be prohibitively expensive.
But with Beijing pledging to invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($367 billion) in renewable power generation – solar, wind, hydro and nuclear – by 2020, China might just have the financial firepower.
The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation hopes to be operating a commercially viable solar space station by 2050, according to a recent report in the country’s official newspaper Science and Technology Daily.
Energy could be beamed to Earth via microwaves or lasers. But Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology, warned that the hazards potentially posed to humans, plants and animals by that process must be examined.
While an endless source of renewable energy is the holy grail in tackling climate change, some fear that lasers produced at an SSP could potentially be weaponized to give Beijing a lethal military instrument.
China was late to the space race – it didn’t send its first satellite into orbit until 1970 – but its program has seriously matured in the past few years, hitting milestones including a manned spaceflight and the landing of a rover on the far side of the moon, a historic first.
But under President Xi Jinping, it has invested billions in building up its space program, while aggressively asserting its influence back on Earth, pursuing the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The plans are getting more ambitious by the day. At the 2019 opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Sunday, the chief designer of China’s lunar exploration told of plans to send a rover to Mars.
“Over the past 60 years, we’ve made a lot of achievements, but there is still a large distance from the world space powers. We must speed up our pace,” Wu Weiren said, claiming a probe would be sent to the red planet in 2020.
Space solar energy is the biggest potential energy source available to humans and could supply nearly all the electrical needs of every person on our planet, according to the United States National Space Society (NSS).
The technology for harnessing solar power in space has been around since the 1960s, says Peter Schubert, director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
But there are several technical hurdles, he says.
These include finding a low-cost, environmentally friendly launch vehicle to take the solar plant into space, combating the huge in-orbit operation and construction costs, and working out how best to transmit the power back to Earth.
One solution to the first issue could be 3D printing.
“Additive manufacturing is now widely available for the aeronautics industry,” says Nobuyoshi Fujimoto, a spokesman for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the country’s equivalent of NASA.
“Therefore, this new manufacturing technology will be used for SSPs as well.”
The NSS believes the necessary technologies are “reasonably near-term” and the costs involved are smaller than paying the price of global warming – particularly when the long-term environmental benefits are considered.
A solar power plant floating 36,000 kilometers above our heads, for example, wouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of generating solar power back on Earth.
Instead, it could be receiving the sun’s energy and generating power 99% of the time, only going offline when the Earth eclipses the sun.