Space-Based Solar Farms Power Up
It would solve our energy needs overnight. But with huge technological and financial challenges, can space-based solar power ever take off?
“Ex-Nasa scientist seeks visionary billionaire to help change the world. High risk venture. Return not guaranteed. GSOH a plus.”
John Mankins, the scientist in question, has not yet reached the point of placing a classified ad, but it could soon be an option. The 25-year veteran of the US space agency is the man behind a project called SPS-Alpha, which aims to loft tens of thousands of lightweight, inflatable modules into space. Once there, they will be assembled into a huge bell-shaped structure that will use mirrors to concentrate energy from the sun onto solar panels. The collected energy would then be beamed down to ground stations on Earth using microwaves, providing unlimited, clean energy and overnight reducing our reliance on polluting fossil fuels. The snag? It is unproven technology and he estimates it will take at least $15bn- $20bn to get his project off the ground.
Mankins initially had research funding from an advanced concepts arm at Nasa, but that money dried up in September 2012; hence his continuing search for a benefactor.
“I can’t think of a better solution than to find somebody who is very wealthy, very visionary and willing to make this happen,” he says.
But not everyone shares Mankins’ optimism. Space-based solar power (SBSP) is a topic that divides the scientific world into extremes. On one side are people like Mankins who believe it is the only solution to our ever increasing energy demands, whilst on the other is a sizeable chunk of the scientific community who believe any money put into solar power should remain firmly on the ground.
SBSP has its roots in the 1941 short story Reason, by Isaac Asimov, which depicts a space station - run by robots - collecting energy from the sun to distribute to Earth and other planets.