Solar in Space: Powering Earth and Beyond

Ever since the United States launched the Vanguard 1 satellite into space on March 17, 1958, solar panels have been an integral part of nearly every satellite, orbiter and space station. Now, after decades of lackluster development, both technologies– solar and space flight– are “taking off.”

For many of us who grew up in the last century, our first awareness of photovoltaic (PV) panels was seeing photos of the futuristic blue wings that powered the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, or the American Skylab space station, or the plethora of communications satellites that were being launched into orbit. It wasn’t until a little later that PV panels began to spring up as power plants for remote outposts, and finally, for off-grid homes.

Skylab photo:wikipedia

Skylab photo:wikipedia

Now, solar arrays are becoming ubiquitous here on earth, and after a long period of stalled funding and conflicted priorities at NASA, privately-funded space travel is finally becoming a reality as well. This exponential growth in both areas, solar and space travel, bodes well for a future of collaborative development that could help bootstrap both technologies to the next level.

Space-Based Solar
Space Based Solar Power, or SBSP, is one concept that might allow for the production of solar power in space that could be used on earth. The motivation behind SBSP is that Earth’s atmosphere blocks more than half of the sun’s energy before it reaches our planet’s surface. This is a really good thing for those of us living on the surface (otherwise we would all be scorched), but it does seriously hinder our ability to harvest all of the solar energy available to us. To access a lot more solar power,

SBSP  illistration:japantimes.co.jp

SBSP illistration:japantimes.co.jp

orbiting solar platforms could capture the sun’s energy and convert it into a form that could be transmitted to earth, Microwaves are one idea, or lasers could be used. Last year, Dr Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer at the US Naval Research Laboratory, told CNN that the concept is scientifically sound.”NASA and the US Department of Energy did a study in the late 70s that cost $20 million at the time and looked at it in pretty great depth,” Dr Jaffe told CNN. “The conclusion at that time was that there was nothing wrong with the physics but the real question is the economics.”

Now, in an era of advanced robotic to build the arrays, inexpensive and more efficient solar panels and relatively cheap privately-owned launch vehicles to carry the equipment into space, We could see serious development in SBSP in the next decade.

Solar Powered Space Travel

In June of 2015, Bill Nye– known to several generation of TV viewers as “Bill Nye the Science Guy”– along with his organization The Planetary Society, launched LightSail, an experimental 11 pound solar-powered spacecraft, into earth’s orbit. The Planetary Society is a non-government organization that promotes space research, and its goal is to make it possible for spacecraft to travel great distances affordably- powered by the sun.

LightSail  photo: http://aboutrenewableenergy.com

LightSail photo: http://aboutrenewableenergy.com

LightSail, as it’s name suggests, is pushed along by the photons of solar “wind” much as a sailing ship on earth is moved by moving air (which is also the result of solar power, BTW.) LightSail is not the first project to experiment with the solar sail. Japan’s space agency successfully launched IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) in 2010. The 700 pound satellite sailed past the planet Venus seven months later, successfully completing its planned mission.

Both LightSail and IKAROS are pushed directly by the power of the sun, although IKAROS also uses PV panels to generate electricity. Larger, interplanetary vehicles in the future may use the solar sail idea, but whatever mode of propulsion, they will most certainly use PV as a source for electricity.

Solar Settlements

Mars One is a somewhat controversial privately funded project aiming to travel to the red planet and establish a colony there. Solar is the projects power source of choice. The Mars One Website states that:

“The Sun is a reliable, robust, and plentiful energy source. Using solar panels is the best choice for Mars One since it takes away the requirement to develop and launch a nuclear reactor, thereby saving time and money while avoiding the risks and concerns of the use of a nuclear power source….Thin film solar (photovoltaic) panels will power the Mars One settlement. These are less efficient than those more commonly used in aerospace, but have the advantage of being extremely light, and are thus easily transportable. The first settlement will install approximately 3000 square meters of power generating surface area.”

Aside from the difficulty in getting public support for launching a nuclear reactor into space, thin-film solar would be much easier to transport, undoubtedly. However, Mars rovers to date have taken a tremendous beating from the dust and dust storms on Mars, so keeping panels clean and functional will be a major challenge for Mars One, or any other explorers, that reach Mars.

As we can see, solar and space travel are as closely allied as technology now as they were in the days of Vanguard 1. Unfortunately, there are still many hurdles to jump over before either solar, or space travel, or solar space travel, reach their full potential.

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About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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