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Solar Energy Beamed From Space Satellites

By James Donahue

The Japanese space program is leading the way in developing the technology that many space engineers believe may someday give humanity all of the energy it needs from the sun. The idea is to launch massive solar panels in space designed to capture solar energy and beam it directly to Earth-based energy outlets.

While NASA and world space research teams from at least 13 other nations are helping finance and develop such a device, the Japanese are rushing toward a goal of having the nation’s first solar panel in orbit and operating by the year 2030. Mitsubishi is investing heavily in the project.

Researchers believe such a satellite would have the capability of wirelessly beaming a strong enough stream of steady energy to power nearly 300,000 homes. The satellite would be massive, utilizing a surface area of four square kilometers. It would transmit power by microwave to a base station on Earth, which would distribute the juice to subscribers.

Space solar panels bypasses problems involved with installing them over thousands of acres of valuable land on Earth. Also in orbit, the solar panels can operate without the obstructions of bad weather, local zoning laws and a variety of other human-created obstacles. Scientists note that the fact that the cold steady temperature of space also would be an asset.

The tricks will be to develop solar cells powerful enough and strong enough to withstand the rigors of deep space and the extreme intensity of the energy they will be designed to capture. Solar energy is five times stronger in space than it is on Earth.

The other problem will be convincing the general public that the transmission of all of the power from these giant panels to the ground will be safe. The plan would be to beam the collected energy to a massive parabolic antenna on Earth through clusters of lasers or microwaves.

One worry, which has some validity, is how to assure everyone that that beam can be safely directed to equipment designed to receive and safely distribute all of that power. How can we be assured that the satellite won’t be accidentally turned in its orbit, or the beam misdirected to miss its mark. Would all of that solar power fry everything in its path if it goes awry?

Other critics of the program are asking how many giant solar panels it might take to capture enough solar power to supply the needs of every city and industrial complex on the planet. They reason that clustering the space around Earth with so many giant flat solar panels might dim the natural light received from the sun and have a profound effect on Earth’s weather patterns.

They might be a cure for global warming, in more than one respect, however.