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Pentagon scientists have successfully tested a small solar panel that, when launched into space, can collect solar power and beam it to any place on earth. The special panel is called a Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module (PRAM) and was launched last May attached to a drone that circles the earth once every 90 minutes. If scaled up, scientists say that these orbital solar panels would work 24/7 and could collect more sunlight than those on earth, and provide power to remote areas of the globe and major power grids alike.
Why This Matters: Along with hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other natural disasters, climate change will also be increasing power outages. Between 2000 and 2016, more than 50% of all power outages in the U.S. were caused by weather events. To prevent catastrophic power loss, like the one seen in Texas this month, experts say states and countries must upgrade and retrofit their power grids to withstand extreme weather. This new technology could play a role in reducing power outages and creating a globally connected power grid. “The unique advantage the solar power satellites have over any other source of power is this global transmissibility,” said Paul Jaffe, a co-developer of the project. “You can send power to Chicago and a fraction of a second later, if you needed, send it instead to London or Brasilia.”
Leaps and Bounds
This technology circumvents a lot of the primary challenges facing solar power down here on Earth. Surface solar panels are limited by day-night cycles, and can only collect energy for about 12 hours per day, but panels in space would orbit the earth facing the sun, and collect sunlight at all times. Panels on the ground also don’t receive as much sunlight due to blue lightscattering in the atmosphere (hence why the sky appears blue) but space panels would collect the full intensity of the sun’s rays. They also wouldn’t be impaired by weather like rain, snow, or dust storms.
However, these panels would have to be produced and launched in large numbers to be an efficient source of power. One pizza box-sized panel produces about enough energy to run a tablet computer, which is impressive if you want to charge your iPad, but not so impressive if you’re looking to restore power to an entire state. But Jaffe says that scaling up can pay off, “Some visions have space solar matching or exceeding the largest power plants today — multiple gigawatts — so enough for a city.” Another disadvantage is getting the panels up there. “Building hardware for space is expensive,” said Jaffe. Although costs are dropping, investing in outer-space infrastructure can be a tall order. However, Jaffe says it’s easier to build massive projects like this one when they don’t rely on gravity for support.
Jaffe also allayed any fears that this technology could one day be used as a space laser. “It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible,” he said.
This op/ed was originally featured in SpaceNews on March 30th and has been reprinted with their and the author’s permission. By Nancy Colleton Small businesses and large multinational corporations face incredible challenges and uncertainty in today’s world. Whether an uncertain economy, continuing impact of a pandemic, or the rapidly changing natural environment of water scarcity, ecosystem […]
Experts are finally uncovering the secrets of Mars; new spacecraft, research, and data are helping NASA and other space agencies fill in gaps in knowledge about the potential for life on the red planet.
Why This Matters: For decades, scientists have explored the idea of placing humans on Mars for research not only on the planet itself but on its potential to sustain human life.
NASA has named 27 asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter after Black, Hispanic, and Native American astronauts to recognize their contributions and inspire a new generation of potential space explorers. Among those honored include Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Ed Dwight Jr., José Hernández, and John Herrington.
Why this Matters: NASA, like many American industries, has struggled with diversity — only 18 Black astronauts have gone to space.
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