Monday, July 15, 2024

Space-Primarily based Solar Energy Began as Sci-Fi and It Nonetheless Is

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The scene: An area-based solar energy station referred to as the Converter is commissioned a while within the Future. The characters: Two astronauts, Powell and Donovan, and a robotic named QT-1 (“Cutie” to its human mates). The plot: Astronauts practice Cutie to take over the station’s operations, which entails gathering photo voltaic vitality in area after which directing it as intense beams of microwaves all the way down to Earth.

This is the backdrop to Isaac Asimov’s 1941 brief story “Reason.” Most of the story is centered across the setting Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and the human-robot relationship. But the station itself is value a re-evaluation. It’s fairly clear that Asimov has no thought how a system just like the Converter works, besides in essentially the most fundamental phrases. Here’s how Powell tried to clarify it to Cutie:

“Our beams feed the world with vitality taken from one of many large incandescent globes that occurs to be close to us. We name that globe the Sun and it is on the opposite facet of the station the place you may’t see it.”

Harnessing solar energy in area is a compelling thought. A decade in the past we offered a undertaking on Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency aiming to launch a 1-gigawatt photo voltaic station in 2031. As a step in that route, JAXA mentioned it show a small satellite tv for pc that sends 1 kilowatt of energy to Earth from an altitude of 400 kilometers subsequent yr. We additionally report Caltech’s SSPD-1 demonstrator undertaking and the US $100 million from a billionaire donor who’s funding it.

A photo voltaic undertaking in area “would waste capital that might be higher spent enhancing much less dangerous methods to extend renewable vitality, similar to batteries, hydrogen, and grid enhancements.”

And but, space-based solar energy stays extra science fiction than science reality, as Henri Barde wrote in “Castles within the Sky?” Barde ought to know: He just lately retired from the European Space Agency, the place amongst different issues he investigated area energy techniques. As Barde’s article explains so nicely, this clear vitality comes at an enormous value, if it may be made, “[wasting] capital that may be higher spent on enhancing much less dangerous methods to extend renewable vitality, similar to batteries, hydrogen, and grid enhancements.

For instance, UK based mostly Space Solar estimates it would take 68 (!) SpaceX Starship launches to elevate all of the belongings wanted to construct a 1.7-km-tall photo voltaic array into orbit. Never thoughts that SpaceX has by no means efficiently launched a Starship into orbit and returned it in a single piece. Even if the corporate can finally decrease the value $10 million per launch, we’re nonetheless speaking a whole lot of thousands and thousands of {dollars} in launch prices alone. We additionally do not have real-life Cuties to construct that station. And the bottom stations and rectennas wanted to obtain the beamed energy and feed it into the grid are simply distant dots on a highway map of a multimillion greenback analysis proposal.

Engineers are sometimes impressed by science fiction. But inspiration solely will get you thus far. Space-based solar energy will stay sci-fi fodder for the foreseeable future. For the nice process of electrifying everybody whereas lowering greenhouse fuel emissions, it’s higher to deal with options based mostly on current applied sciences, similar to typical geothermal, nuclear, wind, and Earth-based photo voltaic, slightly than wasteful and time, brainpower, and cash. a fantasy.

This article seems within the June 2024 print situation “The Chasm Between Imagination and Feasibility.”



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