The Japanese space agency has unveiled an incredible new plan to start collecting solar power in space, and zap it down to Earth via microwaves or laser beams.
Under the plan, known as the Space Solar Power System (SSPS), floating photovoltaic dishes several square miles across would hover in geostationary orbit outside the Earth’s atmosphere as soon as 2030.
According to a researcher at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, one of the project participants, “Since solar power is a clean and inexhaustible energy source, we believe that this system will be able to help solve the problems of energy shortage and global warming. The sun’s rays abound in space.” (Another picture after the jump). To achieve this ambitious and highly futuristic aim, the Japanese government has recently chosen a consortium of companies and scientists charged with making the multi-billion-dollar dream of unlimited clean energy a reality in as little as 20 years. The team, called the Institute for Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer (USEF), also includes Mitsubishi Electric, NEC, Fujitsu and Sharp.
The plan is that the giant solar cells would harvest solar energy, which is at least five times stronger in space than on Earth, and beam it down to terra firma through clusters of lasers or microwaves.
Tadashige Takiya, a spokesman at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), told reporters that the beams would then be collected by gigantic parabolic antennae, most likely located in restricted areas at sea or on dam reservoirs.
At this stage, the consortium are hoping to create a one gigawatt system, equivalent to a medium-sized nuclear power plant, that would produce electricity at eight yen (nine cents) per kilowatt-hour, six times cheaper than the current cost in the country.
Tatsuhito Fujita, one of the JAXA researchers heading the project said that within several years, “a satellite designed to test the transmission by microwave should be put into low orbit with a Japanese rocket.”
The next step, scheduled for around 2020, is to launch and test a large flexible photovoltaic structure with 10 megawatt power capacity, to be followed by a 250 megawatt prototype.
Officials say that this would help evaluate the project’s financial viability, the final aim being to produce electricity cheap enough to compete with other alternative energy sources.
JAXA maintains that the transmission technology would be safe but concedes it would have to convince the public to accept the controversial plan, admitting that some may harbour images of laser beams shooting down from the sky, roasting birds or slicing up aircraft in mid-air.
According to a 2004 study by JAXA, the words ‘laser’ and ‘microwave’ caused the most concern among the 1,000 people questioned.