Solar energy stations in area may clear up Earth’s power wishes

It sounds like science fiction: giant solar power stations floating in space that beam down enormous amounts of energy to Earth. And for a long time, the concept – first developed by the Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in the 1920s – was mainly an inspiration for writers.

A century later, however, scientists are making huge strides in turning the concept into reality. The European Space Agency has realized the potential of these efforts and is now looking to fund such projects, predicting that the first industrial resource we will get from space is “beamed power.”

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, so there’s a lot at stake. From rising global temperatures to shifting weather patterns, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the globe. Overcoming this challenge will require radical changes to how we generate and consume energy.

Renewable energy technologies have developed drastically in recent years, with improved efficiency and lower cost. But one major barrier to their uptake is the fact that they don’t provide a constant supply of energy. Wind and solar farms only produce energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining – but we need electricity around the clock, every day. Ultimately, we need a way to store energy on a large scale before we can make the switch to renewable sources.

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Benefits of space

A possible way around this would be to generate solar energy in space. There are many advantages to this. A space-based solar power station could orbit to face the Sun 24 hours a day. The Earth’s atmosphere also absorbs and reflects some of the Sun’s light, so solar cells above the atmosphere will receive more sunlight and produce more energy.

But one of the key challenges to overcome is how to assemble, launch, and deploy such large structures. A single solar power station may have to be as much as 10 kilometers squared in the area – equivalent to 1,400 football pitches. Using lightweight materials will also be critical, as the biggest expense will be the cost of launching the station into space on a rocket.

Artist's conceptions of a solar power satellite, dubbed the Integrated Symmetrical Concentrator SPS concept.

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