Since the early 1970s, scientists have been toying with the idea of collecting solar power in space, where solar collection rates are stronger than on the surface of the Earth. But because of the costs and technical challenges involved, the concept still remains in the realm of science fiction. That all could change with a new proposal from John Mankins from Artemis Innovation Management Solutions, who claims to have come up with “the first practical solar-power satellite concept.”
SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array) is a novel, bio-mimetic approach to the challenge of space solar power. If successful, this project will make possible the construction of huge platforms from tens of thousands of small elements that can deliver remotely and affordably 10s to 1000s of MW using wireless power transmission to markets on Earth and missions in space. The selected NIAC project will enlist the support of a world-class international team to determine the conceptual feasiblity of the SPS-ALPHA by means of integrated systems analyses, supported by selected "proof-of-concept" technology experiments.
The Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large PHased Array (SPS-ALPHA) design would consist of a large array of thin-film mirrors that would be fixed to a curved surface of a satellite. The mirrors would then transmit sunlight to a set of photovoltaic cells located on the back of the satellite. The beauty of the design is that none of its parts would weigh more than 440 pounds, according to Mankins, which would greatly reduce the cost to transport and assemble the unit.
The idea of collecting solar power in space is attractive because solar energy isn’t diminished by Earth’s atmospheric gasses. Also, there are no cloudy days in space, and a satellite could conceivably collect solar radiation 24 hours per day.
Mankins, who described the solar satellite concept at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts meeting last month, is no stranger to space-based solar power. He started NASA’s Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology program in 1999, and he has been a leader in developing solar power from space.
”The current project will provide a detailed analytical understanding of the SPS-ALPHA concept, with supporting experiments,” Mankins told Space.com.
“The needed next steps are to develop a working prototype of one or more of the modules and demonstrate the assembled system in the field. Over the next several years, the goal is to realize a low-Earth orbit flight test of the system.”
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