The US Air Force wants to beam solar power to Earth from space (video)
Space-based solar energy won’t be just a sci-fi dream forever if things go according to the U.S. Air Force’s plans.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is developing a project called SSPIDR (“Incremental Solar Energy Demonstrations and Research in Space”), which aims to mature the technology necessary to generate and deploy solar energy in space to radiate from the earth.
Such a capability would be a great asset on the battlefield, Air Force officials said.
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“Ensuring that a forward base maintains a reliable power supply is one of the most dangerous parts of military ground operations. Convoys and utility lines are a prime target for adversaries,” said the spokesman for a new AFRL video on SSPIDR.
“Solar energy on the ground seems to be an attractive solution, but it is limited by the area, the size of the required collectors and the climate,” adds the narrator. “But if the solar panels were in orbit, they could have unrestricted access to the sun’s rays and ensure an uninterrupted supply of energy.”
The AFRL provides for sunlight satellites equipped with innovative “sandwich tiles” that convert solar energy into high-frequency electricity (RF) and radiate it to the earth. Down here, receiving antennas convert this RF energy into usable energy.
The AFRL will not build such an operating system, but it hopes to pave the way with SSPIDR, a series of ground and flight experiments that will help mature the required technologies.
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For example, an SSPIDR experiment known as the Arachne will test power conversion and blasting in space using a sandwich tile built by project partner Northrop Grumman. Arachne is slated to go into orbit in 2024.
SSPIDR also contains experiments called SPINDLE and SPIRRAL that demonstrate the orbital deployment of a scaled-down version of a power radiating satellite and test ways to keep satellite temperatures within a manageable range.
SPINDLE is scheduled to be launched in Alpha Space’s Materials International Space Station experimental flight facility in 2023, which is to be deployed outside the International Space Station.
And above our heads, research on solar energy is already being carried out in space. The Photovoltaic Radio-Frequency Antenna Module Flight Experiment (PRAM-FX) was launched in May 2020 on board the US Space Force’s X-37B robotic spaceplane.
PRAM-FX does not radiate energy to Earth, but it does help researchers measure the efficiency of converting sunlight to RF from sandwich tiles. And the early returns are promising, as a recent study showed.
Mike Wall is the author of Out There (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for other people’s lives. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.