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Solar Power Beamed From Space Inches Toward Reality

There is a lot of sunlight in our atmosphere. But we have no way to get power from it down to Earth, because a miles-long extension cord isn’t practical. But scientists are working hard on other solutions.

High above the atmosphere, virtually limitless power is raining down on the Earth. Dreams of launching a satellite to collect this sunlight and beam it back to Earth as clean power remain science fiction—for now.

A recent experiment called Suaineadh (or "twisting" in Scots Gaelic) has brought "space solar power" a few steps closer to a reality. For decades, engineers have made halting progress toward designing the basic components of a space solar power array: a massive photovoltaic or thermal orbiting generator, a microwave or laser transmitter, and ground receivers. Nothing has been deployed. Georgia Tech researcher Minoru Shinohara estimates in his white paper (PDF) that such technology will not arrive until 2030 at the earliest.

But earlier this year, aerospace engineers at Strathclyde University, collaborating with colleagues in Europe, Japan, and the U.S., launched Suaineadh to show that at least one piece of the space solar power puzzle is possible. A spinning assembly (known as a Furoshiki net) was ejected from the nosecone of a rocket, demonstrating that such spinning devices could be deployed successfully (and perhaps cheaply) in the future, according to the researchers. These could be the foundation for massive satellites stabilized in the micro-gravity of Earth orbit.

Although Suaineadh succeeded in showing that such lightweight material could be stabilized in space, it wasn’t a flawless launch. After deploying, the communication system malfunctioned and the device was lost. It may be a long road before we see any solar power from space. But it’s a road we’re marching down.