to infinity and beyond

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I’ve always been highly sceptical wrt any actual ‘real-life’ benefits from our hugely costly and distracting forays into deepest, darkest space. To my marginally unambitious and down-to-Earth mind my default position is to consider the here-and-now problems we have in the world and think of the benefit that could be done in diverting the space budget to those needy causes. But here’s one that could show me as the unadventurous luddite I truly am and, in one fail swoop, solve all our energy issues forever: could space-based solar power (SBSP) be the answer to our ongoing and long-term energy problems?

Sounding like an idea straight out of science fiction – Isaac Asimov described such a technology in his 1941 novel Reason – Nicola Tesla showed that electricity could be transmitted wirelessly via high frequency electro-magnetic radio waves as far back as 1890 and, in 1975, NASA successfully transmitted 34 KWs of leccy power a distance of 1.5km, so the idea has been around for some considerable time. In short, the theory behind SBSP is that a vast satellite would generate power via thousands of photovoltaic panels pointed at the sun. Think of today’s solar panels on your neighbour’s roof and you ain’t a million miles away. This would then be sent to Earth using radio waves before being collected by an equally massive field of ellipse-shaped, low fence-resembling, radio antennae, converted into power and distributed into our existing grid. Simples.

Permanently facing the Sun and remaining in a fixed position relative to the Earth, the potential is obvious and unlimited. Our own government recently described it as technically feasible and both the US and Japan have detailed projects in development. Earlier this year, the then-Minister for Science, George Freeman, declared that SBSP was being “taken seriously”. China reportedly aims to launch its first SBSP station by 2035 and has already started construction of its receiver in the city of Chongqing.

Current prototype designs envisage sending at least one gigawatt of power to Earth, enough to power 750,000 homes and is directly comparable to the output of a modern nuclear power station. Furthermore, engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash estimates that launching an operational solar satellite could cost in the region of £16bn – significantly less than the £23bn expense of the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. That alone makes me sit-up and take notice.

Needless to say not everyone’s convinced and Spaceman Musk describes it as “the stupidest thing ever”. The tech remains untested at scale and former NASA scientist and leading SBSP expert, a John Mankins, admits that it would require at least one gigawatt of energy to actually transport that amount of energy, meaning the satellites need to accommodate far greater loads before becoming commercially feasible. Furthermore, due to the expansion of microwaves spreading out as they travel, the receivers are envisaged as being up to eight miles in length and four miles wide. Mind, although large, this area remains less than the London Array offshore wind farm and, when the lights start going out in future years, even the NIMBYs of Tunbridge Wells could be on-board.

Well I never did. Jules Verne’s time-travelling machine may be my next point of conversion and to the year 802,701 here I come…