those scientists who still believe that

Illustration: Energy Revolution.

A solar farm in space: the idea seems absurd and yet it has been considered more than once in the past. If the old projects never saw the light of day, the one by the Caltech scientists seems to be on the right track. After numerous tests carried out on Earth, the researchers were able to send their space solar panel prototype for several experiments in real conditions.

Production 24 hours a day, all year round and regardless of weather conditions: such is the promise of a solar plant installed in space. Hundreds, even thousands of kilometers from our planet, photovoltaic panels would no longer be subject to day/night alternation or weather attacks. They would also benefit from ideal solar radiation that is not filtered by the atmosphere. But to take advantage of all these advantages, many challenges still need to be overcome.

Researchers at Caltech, at the University of California, are working on this and have already launched their orbital prototype. Called the Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD), the machine took off in early January. It was transported by spacecraft aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, “hitchhiking” with satellites. At the end of this first launch, the team intends to gather valuable information to establish the project’s viability.

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Capturing solar energy from space?

The principle of “harvesting” space solar energy is relatively simple. Once in orbit, the satellite usually captures the sun’s rays using photovoltaic cells. The harvested energy is then transmitted to Earth in the form of radio waves, where it will be transformed into usable electricity. Before arriving at this scenario, Caltech scientists will still have to carry out a series of experiments with their prototype. They first planned to study the spacecraft’s deployment mechanism. They also plan to test various types of photovoltaic cells by sending more than twenty samples into space.

The idea is to analyze its behavior and its resistance to the space environment. After a few months, the researchers will be able to determine the photovoltaic technology that is most suitable for the environmental conditions. The transmission of energy in the form of waves will also be part of the main experiments to be carried out. The device’s performance will be evaluated in several areas of the space. The results of all tests will help to scale the project.

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Is it an economically viable project?

Currently, no concrete information is known about the cost of a space solar power plant. We do know, however, that such a project would involve at least two massive installations. The first would be the terrestrial infrastructure planned to accommodate the energy sent from space. There would also be the orbital plant, which would probably be a big investment.

Furthermore, unlike terrestrial photovoltaic farms, space farms involve the use of rare materials and technologies that are perfectly suited to the inhospitable nature of nothingness. In addition, the costs of launches necessary to form the plant are exorbitant. For SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, a single trip would cost about $67 million. All this would inevitably have repercussions on energy prices. In disapproval, many commentators qualify the project as “unnecessarily complicated”.

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Europeans and Chinese also in the running

While the Americans are the first to submit their prototype, the Europeans and Chinese will soon follow suit. For Europe, it’s the Solaris project by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus. The installation should be operational in 2040. For the time being, the actors are working on the development and maturation of the technologies useful for the project.

China, for its part, plans a first shipment in 2028. Subsequently, it will put a small plant into orbit in 2030, then another larger one in 2035. By 2050, the country already plans to have a space plant as well. than a nuclear power plant.

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