Navy's solar power satellite hardware to be tested in orbit
Comment of the Day

August 10 2020

Commentary by Eoin Treacy

Navy's solar power satellite hardware to be tested in orbit

This article by Sandra Erwin for may be of interest to subscribers. Here is a section:

The 12-inch square tile module will test whether power can be harvested from its solar panel and transform the energy to a radio frequency microwave. The experiment has been in the works for more than a decade.

The module converts sunlight for microwave power transmission. Depuma said engineers decided to not use optical power transmission because a lot of energy would be lost through clouds and atmosphere.

The Naval Research Laboratory said the results of the experiment could drive the design of a dedicated spacecraft to test the transmission of energy back to Earth. The Pentagon is interested in this technology to provide energy to remote installations like forward operating bases and disaster response areas.

Researchers believe that a space solar system traveling above the atmosphere would catch far more energy than it would be possible on the ground due to the abundant and unimpeded sunlight in space.

One of the concerns is the thermal performance of the hardware. “It’s kind of a tricky problem to have something that’s in direct sunlight all the time and maintain the temperature of the electronics,” said Jaffe.

Solar power satellites could provide energy anywhere in the world, he said. “So a really important component of these kind of satellites would be a device that can convert the sunlight into microwaves or some other form of electromagnetic energy that’s suitable for sending to Earth. Now is the time to test it in space and see how it performs.”

Eoin Treacy's view

Development of SpaceX’s BFR is progressing much quicker than most people gave the company credit for. The delivery of the vehicle to active commercial service will greatly reduce the cost of lifting major payloads to space.

Like any market, reducing the cost will increase the volume of what is possible. It is quite likely the number of orbital platforms will multiply over the coming decade. That makes the promise of free basic global internet, orbital power generation and a new theatre for geopolitical conflict are all much more likely.   

Last week I posted an article discussing the potential for using metamaterials as a means of transmitting electricity without power lines. This interview with the CEO of the company pioneering the approach speculates on the feasibility of an orbital solar array. Here is a section:

The only major obstacle at the moment I can see is actually putting a rigid enough structure in space. It has to be quite large to beam all the way from a geosynchronous position 36,000 kilometers up. Any movement in an antenna that would probably be over a kilometer (0.62 mi) wide would destroy the efficiency.

So you'd gain, say a factor of five by harvesting that energy in space, but then the amount of money and effort you'd need to put something like that in space ... It's just easier and cheaper to build more solar arrays on the ground. But yeah, when we have cheaper space payloads, it's not that hard to achieve that.

The extraordinarily low interest rates of the last decade, coupled with the exponential advances in technology have delivered on market innovations that would have been impossible had either factor been absent. Investors willing to pour money into lossmaking companies has pioneered the evolution of everything from ridesharing to electric vehicles and has allowed a commercial space sector to evolve.

The longer the low interest rate environment lasts, the greater the potential some of these businesses will reach commercial viability. At present, space might be the late comer but it has the potential to be profitable earlier than companies like Uber because it is delivering true productivity enhancement.

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