|18 November 2016|


Deserts, roads and rooftops are just some of the places capturing energy from the sun but could space be the next frontier in the quest to take full advantage of the most potent source of renewable power?

Millions of dollars are currently being invested to develop cost-effective technologies that can make space solar a reality.

Last year the Space Solar Power Initiative (SSPI) was launched to ‘develop the scientific and technological innovations necessary to enable a space-based solar power system’. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) will receive up to $17.5 million from the Northrop Grumman Corporation over three years for the project, which is being led by three professors in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS): Harry Atwater, Jr; Ali Hajimiri and Sergio Pellegrino.

“The great thing about space is that [orbits exist where] there’s no nighttime. And so we have the prospect of making dispatchable power, power that flows continuously and that can be instantly sent to where it is needed,” Professor Atwater added on Caltech’s news hub.

“By working together with Caltech, Northrop Grumman extends its long heritage of innovation in space-based technologies and mission solutions,” said Joseph Ensor, vice president and general manager, Space Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Systems, Northrop Grumman. “The potential breakthroughs from this research could have extensive applications across a number of related power use challenges.”

Northrop Grumman engineers and scientists will collaborate with the team at Caltech to develop solutions, build prototypes and obtain experimental and numerical validation of concepts that could allow development to proceed toward eventual implementation.

“This initiative is a great example of how Caltech engineers are working at the leading edges of fundamental science to invent the technologies of the future,” said Ares Rosakis, Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the Caltech Division of Engineering and Applied Science and the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “The Space Solar Power Initiative brings together electrical engineers, applied physicists, and aerospace engineers in the type of profound interdisciplinary collaboration that is seamlessly enhanced at a small place like Caltech. I believe it also demonstrates the value of industry and academic partnerships. We are working on extremely difficult problems that could eventually provide the foundations for new industries.”

Meanwhile, Solaren – also in California – which labels itself as a ‘combination energy and aerospace company’ is on a mission to ‘create and deliver cost competitive space electricity’ by completing the ‘engineering development and fabrication of the world’s first space solar power (SSP) plant’.

Dr James Rogers and Gary Spirnak are Solaren’s inventors and the company’s ‘breakthrough space solar power plant system has been patented in all of the world’s major space-faring countries’ – Russia was the latest to do so in August.

Solaren’s website explains the system: “Space solar power plants collect solar energy in geostationary earth orbit 24/7, convert it to radio frequency (RF) energy for transmission to an earth receive station, which converts the RF energy to electricity for delivery to utility customers via local power grids.”