The government has commissioned new research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems, involving ‘very large’ satellites transmitting to ground-based receivers connected to the electrical power grid.
The idea was first mooted by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov in 1941. Despite its fantastical origins, it is now reportedly being studied by several nations thanks to rapid advances in lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission technology.
“This, together with lower-cost commercial space launch, may make the concept of solar power satellites more feasible and economically viable,” said a government press release. “Now the UK in 2020 will explore whether this renewable technology could offer a resilient, safe and sustainable energy source.”
The study, led by Frazer-Nash Consultancy, will consider the engineering and economics of such a system – whether it could deliver affordable energy for consumers, and the engineering and technology that would be required to build it. One of the biggest issues to overcome is assembling the massive satellites in orbit, which has not been done before at this scale.
“The Sun never sets in space, so a space solar power system could supply renewable energy to anywhere on the planet, day or night, rain or shine,” said Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency. “It is an idea that has existed for decades, but has always felt decades away.
“The UK is growing its status as a global player in space and we have bold plans to launch small satellites in the coming years. Space solar could be another string to our bow, and this study will help establish whether it is right for the UK.”
Historically, the cost of rocket launches and the required mass made SBSP unfeasible, but private ventures such as SpaceX have brought the cost of launch down dramatically in the last decade.
“SBSP has the potential to contribute substantially to UK energy generation, and offers many benefits if it can be made practical and affordable,” said Martin Soltau, Frazer-Nash space business manager.
“Frazer-Nash is studying the leading international solar power satellite designs, and we will be drawing up the engineering plan to deploy an operational SBSP system by 2050. We are forming an expert panel, comprised of leading SBSP experts and space and energy organisations, to gain a range of industry views.
“We will compare SBSP alongside other forms of renewable energy, to see how it would contribute as part of a future mix of clean energy technologies.”
While technology development, space-based assembly and heavy launches are likely to prove major challenges for the futuristic vision, Earth-based solar power is a well-established component in the global energy mix. A recent report from the International Energy Agency said that “solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity in history.”
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