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Published on March 13th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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Yes, Space Solar Power Is A Real Thing

March 13th, 2014 by  


The US Navy is all over space solar power, so yes it really is a real thing and no, the Navy hasn’t suddenly lost its way to the ocean. One key advantage of generating solar power from space is the idea that it can be transmitted to remote locations where transmission lines would be difficult or impossible to build.

Once the pieces of the technology puzzle are put together, getting space solar power to your location would be as easy as setting up a portable receiver, making it the ideal mobile power source for the US Marine Corps as well as ships at sea.

space solar power

Space solar power concept courtesy of US Naval Research Laboratory.

US Navy Quits Fossil Fuels

Certain federal legislators and their supporters have adopted a slash-and-burn approach to new energy technology while pushing for fossil fuels, but they don’t seem to be able to thwart the Navy.

We were just taking note of the Navy’s new role as a test bed for next-generation wave power devices, and that’s just for starters. The Navy is deeply invested in biofuels and stationary solar power, it is beginning to tap into utility scale wind power, and it has a big hand in foundational graphene research and other clean tech fields.

Meanwhile, the Marines have been in the vanguard of mobilizing solar power for expeditionary use, the latest example being a portable solar power vest that talks to itself.

As for why, take a look at the risks and logistics of transporting diesel fuel and other fossil sources around the globe, let alone into war zones and field maneuvers, and there’s your answer.

Space Solar Power

Several other teams have been working on space solar power (here and here for example) but this is the first time the Navy came across our radar so let’s see what they’re up to.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Jaffe is aiming at a goal of cost-competitive solar power at about 10 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, the Energy Department’s SunShot goal is six cents by 2020 (it’s already down to 11 cents), but when you take military and emergency relief applications into account, 10 cents is still a good deal.

The transmission of solar energy might seem like the biggest obstacle to success, but that technology is pretty much in place.

Keep in mind that solar power has been used in space for a long time, so that technology is well in hand, too.

The real problem is developing solar panels and other components that weigh as little as possible, because the weight is directly related to the cost of getting all that equipment into space. Once it’s up there, it would be assembled by robots (the Navy’s Space Robotics Group is already on that, by the way).

To tackle the weight problem, Jaffe has developed two related ultra-light solar modules. One is a high-efficiency “sandwich” style module that converts solar energy to a radio frequency, with an integrated antenna to transmit power.

The other is a patent pending “step” variation that opens the sandwich out. For those of you playing accordion at home, you can think of the sandwich as a closed bellows. With everything pushed together that creates thermal inefficiencies, but if you open it out you can enable heat to radiate more efficiently.

space solar power step module

Step solar module courtesy of US Naval Research Laboratory.

The step module has been tested in a specially built vacuum chamber that mimics space-like conditions (the only one of its kind, apparently), and so far it has proved to be four times more efficient than sandwich modules.

As for those aforementioned federal legislators and their fossil fuel supporters, the pushback against space solar power is probably going to include a lot of chuckling while finger-pointing (no seriously, beam me up Scotty), but the rocket scientists are going to get the last laugh.

According to the Navy, the International Academy of Astronautics has predicted that space solar power could be up and running within the next 30 years.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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