Collecting the solar power in outer space and transmitting it wirelessly to the surface of the earth for usage in various applications is the basic concept of space based solar power (also known as SBSP). High collection or absorption rate of uninterrupted solar energy is one of the primary advantages of the technique. During night and cloud cover, solar energy is unavailable on earth. The incoming solar energy is largely affected by earth’s atmosphere. About 30% of incoming solar energy is reflected to the space due to earth’s thick atmosphere. The tilt of the earth’s axis actually causes various seasons, which in turn affects the incoming solar radiation. In space the absence of atmosphere & zero effect of the earth’s tilt poses a great opportunity to harness the incessant solar energy.
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Self-assembling satellites are launched into space, and equipped with reflectors and microwave or laser power transmitter. These expandable reflectors or mirrors expands & directs solar radiation onto the panels. These panels transform solar energy into microwave or a laser, and transmit the uninterrupted beam down to power receiving stations on earth and add it to the electric grid. Space based solar power can deliver large amount of energy with minimal impact to the environment. It may solve energy and greenhouse gas emission issues. Two types of satellites are being discussed for designing of SBSP: microwave transmitting satellite and laser transmitting satellite. Of these two types, the microwave transmitting satellite is larger in size and orbits at much higher altitude (around 30-35000 km). It incurs higher cost of launching and setting the satellite system into the orbit. Whereas the laser transmitting system is smaller in size and orbits the earth at lesser altitude of 300-400 km above the earth’s surface thus has lesser cost. However, the construction of such a system requires significant investment in R&D and then into a pilot project.
The application of SBSP derived solar energy is large as the source of energy is limitless. The energy emitted by the sun every hour is more than that consumed by a human in a year. The energy gathered at the station located on the earth’s surface will provide uninterrupted electricity for domestic, commercial, and industry usage. Increase in number of such projects may completely transform the ongoing energy scenario. Waste free operation is another driver of this technology. Nuclear waste generated by nuclear power plant & coal power plant pollutes the environment and also incurs huge cost for its disposal.
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High cost of launching the equipment into the geostationary orbits is a major restraint of this technique. The rocket technology is evolving, thus it is possible to have reusable rockets in near future. Reusable rockets will increase the frequency of launching and thus the cost of launching operation will reduce. Reduction in launching cost of SBSP will promote the concept to become a reality.
The technology is not yet available in the market. However, the following organizations plan to engage in SBSP: NASA, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), European Space Agency (ESA), & Space Energy Inc.