The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a new program called Solaris that aims to explore the feasibility of launching solar structures into orbit, harnessing the sun's energy and transmitting it to the ground. If this concept comes to fruition, Solaris could provide always-on space-based solar power and make up 10 to 15 percent of Europe's energy use by the 2030s.
Continuous Clean Energy Sources
The primary driver for Solaris is the need for continuous clean energy sources. Unlike fossil fuels and nuclear power, solar and wind energy are intermittent and will not be possible to store in massive amounts until battery technologies improve. However, space solar arrays could be more than 90 percent efficient, providing a solution to this problem.
Solaris is considered a preparatory program, meaning ESA has completed a pilot study, but it's not yet ready for full-scale development. The program calls for designing an in-orbit demonstration of the technology, launching it in 2030, developing a small version of a space solar power plant in the mid-2030s, and then scaling it up dramatically.
Technical and Economic Feasibility
For the project to go forward, ESA researchers must determine by 2025 that it's possible to achieve space-based solar in a cost-efficient way. Launch costs have dropped, satellites have become cheaper to mass-produce, and the cost of photovoltaics has fallen, making space solar more competitive with terrestrial energy sources.
Transmitting Energy to the Ground
To get the energy down to the electricity grid, the researchers are considering converting the electricity to microwave radiation, which would seamlessly pass through the atmosphere without much energy loss. However, this would require a large receiving station on the ground, which could be costly. Researchers are also considering other designs, such as deploying smaller arrays in a medium Earth orbit to form a relay.
Solaris is an ambitious project that aims to provide always-on space-based solar power to Europe, making a significant contribution to the European Union's goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The program is still in its early stages, and much work needs to be done to determine its technical and economic feasibility.
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