December 2, 2019

...AND CHEAPER...:

How to Get Solar Power on a Rainy Day? Beam It From Space (Daniel Oberhaus, 12/02/19, Wired)

Like fusion energy, space-based solar power seemed doomed to become a technology that was always 30 years away. Technical problems kept cropping up, cost estimates remained stratospheric, and as solar cells became cheaper and more efficient, the case for space-based solar seemed to be shrinking.

That didn't stop government research agencies from trying. In 1975, after partnering with the Department of Energy on a series of space solar power feasibility studies, NASA beamed 30 kilowatts of power over a mile using a giant microwave dish. Beamed energy is a crucial aspect of space solar power, but this test remains the most powerful demonstration of the technology to date. "The fact that it's been almost 45 years since NASA's demonstration, and it remains the high-water mark, speaks for itself," Jaffe says. "Space solar wasn't a national imperative, and so a lot of this technology didn't meaningfully progress."

John Mankins, a former physicist at NASA and director of Solar Space Technologies, witnessed how government bureaucracy killed space solar power development firsthand. In the late 1990s, Mankins authored a report for NASA that concluded it was again time to take space solar power seriously and led a project to do design studies on a satellite system. Despite some promising results, the agency ended up abandoning it.

In 2005, Mankins left NASA to work as a consultant, but he couldn't shake the idea of space solar power. He did some modest space solar power experiments himself and even got a grant from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program in 2011. The result was SPS-ALPHA, which Mankins called "the first practical solar power satellite." The idea, says Mankins, was "to build a large solar-powered satellite out of thousands of small pieces." His modular design brought the cost of hardware down significantly, at least in principle.

Jaffe, who was just starting to work on hardware for space solar power at the Naval Research Lab, got excited about Mankins' concept. At the time he was developing a "sandwich module" consisting of a small solar panel on one side and a microwave transmitter on the other. His electronic sandwich demonstrated all the elements of an actual space solar power system and, perhaps most important, it was modular. It could work beautifully with something like Mankins' concept, he figured. All they were missing was the financial support to bring the idea from the laboratory into space.

Jaffe invited Mankins to join a small team of researchers entering a Defense Department competition, in which they were planning to pitch a space solar power concept based on SPS-ALPHA. In 2016, the team presented the idea to top Defense officials and ended up winning four out of the seven award categories. Both Jaffe and Mankins described it as a crucial moment for reviving the US government's interest in space solar power.

Posted by at December 2, 2019 2:41 PM

  

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