European space company wants solar power plant in space

Jan 21, 2010 by Lin Edwards report

(PhysOrg.com) -- EADS Astrium, Europe's biggest space company, plans to put a solar power satellite in orbit to demonstrate the collection of solar power in space and its transmission via infrared laser to provide electricity on Earth.

Chief executive officer of Astrium, François Auque, said the system is at the testing stage, but that a viable system collecting and transmitting power from could be within reach soon. Auque said space is an attractive idea because it is an inexhaustible and clean form of energy. Unlike solar plants on Earth, orbital solar collectors can work around the clock, and there is no interference from clouds or atmospheric dusts or gases, which means the energy hitting in orbit is much greater than it would be for the same panels on the ground.

Earlier concepts of beaming power to Earth from space were criticized because they relied on microwaves to transmit the power to the ground, which has safety concerns, so Astrium plans to use infrared lasers instead, which means that even if they were misdirected people and objects hit by the laser beams could not be scorched.

The transmission of power via has been tested in Astrium’s laboratories, and they are now concentrating on improving the system’s efficiency. Work on developing converters to convert received infrared energy to electricity is proceeding rapidly, and Astrium is collaborating in this work with scientists at the University of Surrey, in the UK. The company is hoping to achieve 80% efficiency in the conversion.

According to Astrium’s chief technology officer, Robert Laine, at present the power handled by the system is limited by the size of the laser that can be built. A demonstration mission would also be necessary to prove the system works, and this should be possible within the present decade.

The concept of harvesting solar power in space has been discussed for at least the last three decades, but the problems of power loss during transmission and the expense and difficulty of assembling large arrays of in space have seemed almost insurmountable. However, Astrium is not the only company close to bringing the idea to fruition. Last September Japan announced it is planning to put a small demonstration solar collecting satellite in orbit by 2015. This system will transmit the power to Earth using microwaves.

EADS Astrium is seeking investors and partners such as the EU, national governments, space agencies, or power companies, to fund and contribute in other ways to the development of its operational orbital solar collection and transmission system.

Explore further: Indonesia passes law to tap volcano power

More information: EADS Astrium -- www.astrium.eads.net/

Related Stories

Desert power: A solar renaissance

Apr 01, 2008

What does the future hold for solar power? “Geotimes” magazine looks into more efficient ways of turning the sun’s power into electricity in its April cover story, “Desert Power: A Solar Renaissance.”

Space-Based Solar Power Coming to California in 2016

Apr 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- In the near future, a solar power satellite may be supplying electricity to 250,000 homes around Fresno County, California. Unlike ground-based solar arrays, satellites would be unaffected ...

Thai Optical Earth Observation Space System

Jul 05, 2005

THEOS will provide Thailand with worldwide geo-referenced image products and image processing capabilities for applications in cartography, land use, agricultural monitoring, forestry management, coastal zone monitoring and ...

Recommended for you

Cool roofs in China can save energy and reduce emissions

3 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Working with Chinese researchers, the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has conducted the first comprehensive study of cool roofs in China and concluded ...

Indonesia passes law to tap volcano power

Aug 26, 2014

The Indonesian parliament on Tuesday passed a long-awaited law to bolster the geothermal energy industry and tap the power of the vast archipelago's scores of volcanoes.

Expert calls for nuke plant closure (Update)

Aug 25, 2014

A senior federal nuclear expert is urging regulators to shut down California's last operating nuclear plant until they can determine whether the facility's twin reactors can withstand powerful shaking from ...

User comments : 44

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Fritzer
1 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2010
i like this idea
DozerIAm
1.8 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2010
I like the idea... until I think about the hazard this presents to air traffic flying in the region. What happens to the physical structure of the aircraft if it flies thru it? The avionics? The flight crew and passengers?
Foundation
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 21, 2010
If it is dangerous to aircrafts, they probably won't fly through it.
LKD
5 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2010
I question whether this will even last long enough to repay the cost of construction, lifting into space, refueling of propellant, and repairs. I bet this will end up being a big money pit.

As well, who knows what the environment will do to something so massive over extended duration, likely there will be a tremendous learning curve. I have a terrible feeling we'll waste a lot of money on this and still find nuclear power is far cheaper and practical and efficient.
antialias_physorg
4.8 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2010
If you do the math (cost, weight, pollution/ozone-destruction by the number of launches needed, degradation/need to periodically replace cells, debris damage and needed repair flights to avionics and refueling for station keeping motors, ... ) then you will find that this is currently a pipe dream.

The ozone-killing properties of rocket fuel would destroy the ENTIRE ozone layer 20 times over for getting enough of these panels into space to power even one country (let alone the world).
El_Nose
1 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
I think this is rather silly -- the idea of using infrared light that is.

The most effeicient use would be microwave radiation to transmit energy -- at sufficient frequency there is VERY LITTLE loss due to the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere - meaning you can transmit power through clouds, reaching effeciencies of 95+% which lets face it is awesome.

I have not seen the numbers on infrared transmission effeciency but my gut and not science tells me that increases in dust or clouds in the atmosphere will likely block this form totally.

@LKD -- Solar cells almost never need to replaced and in this scenerio you would not replace but simply add on to generate more power. There are plans to make a 2GW solar power station such as this with very few launches.
shinobue111
3 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
What is the strategy to keep it working 24/7? Doesn't it have to be in geosynchronous orbit for the laser to be aimed at the receiver on the surface? Would that make it pass through the Earth umbra?
zevkirsh
5 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
tax payer funded of course right?
DGBEACH
1 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
Work on developing converters to convert received infrared energy to electricity is proceeding rapidly, and Astrium is collaborating in this work with scientists at the University of Surrey, in the UK. The company is hoping to achieve 80% efficiency in the conversion.

What a minute...then why would they need the satellite...isn't the sun a fantastic source of infrared light? And if they reach that 80% level on the receiver end, wouldn't that make up for any losses that power storage (used during the nighttime) would introduce?
DozerIAm
1 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2010
What is the strategy to keep it working 24/7? Doesn't it have to be in geosynchronous orbit for the laser to be aimed at the receiver on the surface? Would that make it pass through the Earth umbra?


I would imagine if its in geosynchronous orbit you would either at least 3 so there is always LOS between the sun and "a" satellite, and then bewteen that satellite and the one that's doing the "beaming down" activities.
El_Nose
1 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
About geosync orbit

This is unecessary. You would not use 3 satelites either... the waste transmitting and recieving would be prohibitive. Low-orbiting satellites, as proposed for Palau, would pass over once
every 90 minutes or so, transmitting power to a rectenna for perhaps
five minutes, requiring long-term battery storage or immediate use -
for example, in recharging electric automobiles via built-in
rectennas.

One NASA study visualized
solar-panel arrays 3 by 6 miles in size, transmitting power to
similarly sized rectennas on Earth.

Each such mega-orbiter might produce 5 gigawatts of power, more than
twice the output of a Hoover Dam.

jj2009
5 / 5 (3) Jan 21, 2010
i can't help but think simply building a really big solar plant on earth, rather than launching a complicated satellite into space, and beaming the energy down in microwaves or whatever, is a much simpler option. how do you repair the thing when it breaks? with astronauts or what...
Shootist
1 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
I like the idea... until I think about the hazard this presents to air traffic flying in the region. What happens to the physical structure of the aircraft if it flies thru it? The avionics? The flight crew and passengers?


Gee, what happens when a plane flies through a radio transmission?
Shootist
2.8 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2010
i can't help but think simply building a really big solar plant on earth, rather than launching a complicated satellite into space, and beaming the energy down in microwaves or whatever, is a much simpler option. how do you repair the thing when it breaks? with astronauts or what...


Why build in orbit?

1. The sun is only available for part of the day on the surface.
2. The planet's atmosphere attenuates solar energy.
3. There are no terrorists in synchronous Earth orbit.
4. There are no environmental impact statements needed for orbital operations.
5. Because it's way cool.

How to fix?

Astronauts.
otto1923
2.8 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2010
How to fix?

Astronauts.
Robots. Servicing orbitals is a great reason to develop the tech, especially with the loss of the shuttle. They could remain as part of the installation, doing some work autonomously.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
1. The sun is only available for part of the day on the surface.
2. The planet's atmosphere attenuates solar energy.
3. There are no terrorists in synchronous Earth orbit.
4. There are no environmental impact statements needed for orbital operations.

1. For the same cost you can build 10 such installations on earth, giving you more 'time in the sun per square meter' than for the space based installation
2. True, but see above: that will make up for more than that easily
3. It's hard to sabotage a solar field 3 miles wide (that would be like trying to sabotage a corn field)
4. Read about pollution from rocket fuel. That is MAJOR for such a big installation. Also: not much environemntal impact in deserts.
Robots.

Robots aren't good if you don't know whht is broken or for 'untidy' breakdowns (like debris hitting the intallation and warping structs). We're not at the stage where robotsa are good for anything but following a script.
poi
1 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2010
@shinobue111
What is the strategy to keep it working 24/7? Doesn't it have to be in geosynchronous orbit for the laser to be aimed at the receiver on the surface? Would that make it pass through the Earth umbra?

you have satellite tv or net 24/7, right?
Or, place ones on the poles (no umbras there) that passes it on to other satellites like a network, then geosync.
ontheinternets
1 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
I feel like it might ultimately be more efficient to put objects near the sun (to catch a lot more energy -- and some which never would have made its way to Earth) and then direct that energy to the earth. Imagine wide-area, light-weight, reflectors near the sun which focus high intensity radiation on a device near the Earth, which then either beams the energy down or occasionally drops packets of high density fuel. The quantities of energy involved could be so great that even a low-efficiency technology would produce a lot. Sure, I'm just dreaming here.. but I can't imagine that positioning the arrays near the Earth to primarily capture energy which was going to make its way down to the Earth anyway is going to be particularly economical for as long as rocket launches are required. Putting something near the sun that can operate when being hit by extraordinary amounts of energy.. that would certainly interest me.
zuggerjack
4 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2010
Sounds like dangerous "pie-in-the-sky", especially if you ever read a book called Sunstroke written by US aerospace engineer David Kagan that addresses the environmental catastrophes that could occur should space solar power-beaming satellites be deployed. The US Environmental Protection Agency has assessed space solar power laser transmission from space-to-earth and has determined that not only does it represent a major ocular hazard to pilots and people on the ground (can fry their eyeballs) but also can help exacerbate global-warming effects in the atmosphere, the last thing we need.

Could make a great space-based orbital weapon, though.
antialias
not rated yet Jan 22, 2010
Sattelites would need to be in geosynch orbit above the equator so as to remain stationary relative to a ground based receiving station (otherwise you have a continually shifting target and are endangering a much larger area because yiur beam would have to continually be realigned. Also you'd need to switch between receiving stations every few minutes/hours when your first base station passes over the horizon)

Umbra is not a problem since that is fairly small at GEO. Even if you pass through it the time spent there is minimal.

Hoarding the energy and beaming it down once every revolution is not feasible. You'd need to ad huge battery systems to the station (which would exacerbate the weight issue immensely)

All in all a very ill thought-out proposition.
dirk_bruere
not rated yet Jan 22, 2010
Would somebody point me to a reference for an IR laser with a conversion efficiency of 80%+? I've never heard of one.
Buyck
not rated yet Jan 22, 2010
This technology can be important for colonization to other planets in the future to tackle the energy problem.
antialias
5 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2010
@Buyck:
Why? If the planet has little atmosphere then a ground based system will always be much cheaper (if it has a dense atmosphere then there will be transmission problems).

If the planet is far away from the sun (e.g. Mars) then the size needed is impractical.
LKD
not rated yet Jan 22, 2010
This conversation reminds me of a rpg game from a while ago. I think it was Rifts? Where they set up a satellite power system, it went horribly wrong, and doomed everyone on the planet.

The problem with this system is that the cost is impractical. We can over come dealing with beaming the energy down, being accurate, and such, but we are still in the stone age when it comes to getting things into space.

I would rather that they spend this money on other projects, but at least someone is trying to do something to bring the future to us in my lifetime. So I applaud the effort and hope it succeeds, because we all benefit from the experience.
zuggerjack
not rated yet Jan 23, 2010
LKD, you've got it right that one of the problems with power-beaming from a solar power satellite is the prohibitive cost, but the main concern is environmental safety as described in Sunstroke by David Kagan, the bible on space solar power. No doubt the computer game you referred to ripped off the premise from Sunstroke and deserves a lawsuit. Interesting how Kagan is always slightly ahead of today's technology, before it becomes reality.
jeffhans
not rated yet Jan 23, 2010
I say you figure out approximately how much the whole thing will cost, then take that amount and invest in Thorium reactors http://en.wikiped.../Thorium For the investment you will then have a nearly inexhaustible form of energy production that has no potential to be misused by countries like Iran to make nuclear weapons. Having a power source that cannot be remotely hacked to re-aim at national capitals is also a bonus.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2010
a nearly inexhaustible form of energy production that has no potential to be misused by countries like Iran to make nuclear weapons
Could you please explain to me the difference between "use" and "misuse"? Why didn't you use "use"?
jeffhans
not rated yet Jan 23, 2010
Because I feel that nuclear weapons can be both used and misused and some specific countries, again like Iran, can be counted on to misuse them.
misuse
n [ˌmɪsˈjuːs] also misusage
1. erroneous, improper, or unorthodox use misuse of words
2. cruel or inhumane treatment
vb [ˌmɪsˈjuːz] (tr)
1. to use wrongly
2. to treat badly or harshly
zuggerjack
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
Space solar power satellite microwave/laser power beams could be a very effective directed-energy weapon as described in Sunstroke by David Kagan, and could very well be intentionally "misused" by those nations currently developing them. US, Japan and now Europe have announced they intend to deploy this type of satellite. The big question: where will the hundreds of billions of US dollars, Japanese yen, and Euros come from to develop and deploy these satellites? Will it come from defense contractors who will "misuse" these satellites to fight more Vietnam-type wars that line their pockets for decades to come? Please think about it.
Husky
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
All the technological isseus could probably be resolved in the end, but high launchcosts still remains the single biggest economical hurdle to overcome.

Before commercial viable megascale space-eploration can taKE off I think money is better spend in researching and building cheaper launchmethods first (X-prize), after that space would be our oyster, not only in the mind of engineers gone wild.
mrlewish
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 24, 2010
This is stupid. Why not put solar panels on a bunch of roofs? It's a lot cheaper and more reliable. I'll tell you why... because "they" can't control it if everybody has it on their roof. The only sustainability these people are interested is sustaining their profits. You know what, I'm not obligated to help them.
Quantum_Conundrum
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2010
Have any of you ever heard of a Dyson Swarm or Dyson Sphere? While the Sphere is probably never going to be possible, the Dyson Swarm WILL eventually be possible.

With high enough robotics technology, constructing orbital solar arrays and Dyson Swarms WILL be possible, with a minimum of launches from earth.

Once robitic technology peaks in a few decades to a century, they will be able to send up a single robot which will construct these things by the thousands from material in the solar system.

In the mean time, I think panels and wind turbines on the ground and roofs until everyone has them is the best option for now...

However, the mere fact that the European Space agency and Japan are even taking this seriusly proves I was right in a debate with certain others recently...

mrlewish:
You are correct. Nobody has any real intention of selling solar or wind power plants commercially, because they can't brainwash/control you as easily if they do...
DozerIAm
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
If it is dangerous to aircrafts, they probably won't fly through it.

It seems inappropriate to say "duh" in response to a post in a well meaning discussion, but seriously this post merits it. Do you expect it will be visible, or even in exactly the same location at all times? Once the technology becomes feasible, imagine a world with dozens or more of these "invisible towers of death". Perhaps a glib response isn't better than no response at all.
ontheinternets
not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
Looking at the comments and ratings, I see that someone dislikes mention of the future possibility of collectors near the sun. I wonder if they are aware that the amount of energy received is proportional to the inverse square of the distance from the source, and what happens with the scales involved.

I would certainly agree that the technology is not here today, but the fact remains that if a collector placed close to the sun could capitalize on the extraordinary bombardment of radiation (ie. without getting fried or wasting it all to protect itself), it would be no small gain.
antialias
5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2010
There's a couple of problems with that statement:

1) When you put collectors close to the sun then you are putting them farther away from earth (how do you plan on getting the energy back here? Laser beams widen.)...besides you will have different periods of revolution and all that jazz. (Unless you put them all at L1 - which isn't all that much closer to the sun)

2) The closer you get to the sun the higher the problem of degradation. Solar cell arrays don't stay operable forever. You need to continually replace the degradation losses. I remember doing the calculations for boosting solar cells into orbit recently and if I wasn't far off then simply the act of replacing losses would cost around a third of the worlds GDP - every year (assuming we wanted enough solar cells up there to supply all earth's needs).

Oh, and it would take a few thousand shuttle launches a year, too.
antialias
not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
Actually I can see a limited use for such a system where it my even be economical: Providing energy to really out of the way places (e.g. to research stations in Antarctica or offshore installations in the middle of nowhere.)
ontheinternets
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
I agree that we wouldn't put our current collectors out by the sun. With launch costs as they are, I don't think it makes much sense to send solar cells into earth orbit to collect energy for terrestrial use. Rather than completely dismiss the possibility of collecting energy in space though, I think the possibilities seem more promising if the quantity of energy hitting the material is orders of magnitude higher than it would be if it were left on the earth's surface. I don't have much in the way of ideas nor have any idea how to connect the dots however.
zuggerjack
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Antialias, you're absolutely correct in postulating that such a space solar power station could supply energy to "way-out places" like Mars for instance, as recommended by Sunstroke author David Kagan. Why not work out all the "Murphy's Law bugs" by deploying these solar power satellites in Martian orbit to supply future astronauts with much-needed electricity up there, and then when these power sats are operating perfectly (actually generating power without blinding or frying people on the ground) by all means put them in Earth orbit for a real go-round.
antialias
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Solar constant on (or near) Mars is only 44% of that on earth. Photovoltaics would be pretty inefficient there. Since Mars also does not have much of an atmosphere there is not much drawback in having the panels directly on the ground instead of in space.

...depending on where you manufacture them of course. If you manufacture them on Earth and shoot them to Mars then orbital deployment would be easier.

The further out you go the more reason there is to not use solar energy.

In Earth orbit the solar constant is about 1350W/m^2
On the surface (with clear skies) it's about 1000W/m^s (albeit only for 50% of the time as compared to the space based system)

Seem like not enough difference to merit all the trouble of sattelites, launch costs and transmission losses to me.
zuggerjack
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
Antialias, thanks for your analysis of deploying space solar power in Martian orbit as recommended by Sunstroke author David Kagan. The problem with ground-based solar panels on Mars is the weather up there, horrific 300+ kph dust storms that envelop the Red planet from time to time, that would completely inundate the solar panels with dirt and so on. Remember NASA's Spirit rover whose solar panels were so covered with dust that it was losing power big-time? No doubt space solar power could help provide electricity for future Martian astronauts, once this wretched recession is over and nations can afford to be space-faring.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 28, 2010
Dust storms would prohibit beaming down of power. Cleaning solar panels is also pretty simple once you have a bit of energy at your disposal (just add a transparent layer that you can excite at ultrasound frequencies for a minute every day or so. For this you need piezoceramics which require low power but high voltage - the reason why the rover didn't have those).

But I think for Mars nuclear reactors would prove to be a far superior source of energy. Since there is no fresh air, life bearing soil, or water to contaminate that would make underground fission (or fusion if we ever get it working) generators the best choice.
zuggerjack
not rated yet Jan 29, 2010
Polluting Martian soil and water with dangerous contaminants from nuclear reactors might not be a good idea. We don't know yet whether life exists in the Martian soil--that's a job for future NASA/ESA landers. But thanks to NASA's rovers and their Phoenix lander we do know for certain that liquid water and water ice (code-named "brine") exist very close to the surface. This enormous amount of accessible water would indeed sustain astronauts on Mars, and enable them to convert it into fuel for return flights to Earth, without having to bring it with them. David Kagan, US aerospace engineer and the author of Sunstroke did postulate that existing Martian water could be converted into hydrogen fuel and an oxidizer to generate electricity in fuel cells, to supply power to Mars astronauts during those infernal duststorms. When the dust clears, then either space solar power or conventional solar power can take up the load. Thanks again for your input.
nevdka
not rated yet Feb 01, 2010
why are infrared lasers considered safer? If you have the same (presumably quite high) energy density, either will fry you.
DozerIAm
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
How about using one of these self contained mini nuke power cells?

http://www.hyperi...ion.com/