Skip to main content
Move the World.
Space Plane

Lead image courtesy of United States Air Force

One of the biggest limitations of solar power is that it's only efficient when the sun is shining brightly in the sky.

Since the 1970s, NASA scientists have pondered whether it'd be possible to collect solar power in space and then beam it down to the Earth. Now, a group from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is going to use a space plane to test the theory.

Secretive Space Plane

A space plane is, as the name suggests, a hybrid between an airplane and a spacecraft.

The one at the center of this new experiment, the U.S. Air Force's X-37B, will hitch a ride into Earth's orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket on May 16. When it returns to Earth, the uncrewed craft will land horizontally, like an airplane.

The X-37B has flown five times before, and as with those previous flights, most of what the space plane actually does in orbit is classified.

However, the Air Force has revealed that it is attaching a service module to the space plane that will contain several experiments, including a small solar panel developed by physicists from the NRL.

"This is a major step forward," lead researcher Paul Jaffe told Wired. "This is the first time that any component geared towards a solar-powered satellite system has ever been tested in orbit."

space plane solar panel

Image of the NRL's experimental solar panel (12-inch ruler for scale). Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Global Solar Power

The goal of the experiment is to see if it's possible to capture sunlight in space, convert it into electricity, and then convert that electricity into microwaves.

In theory, those microwaves could then be beamed down to Earth via a satellite and converted back into electricity on the surface. The NRL team won't be taking that extra step, though, because the waves would affect the space plane's other experiments.

Instead, they designed the system to feed the microwaves through a cable so that they can study the power output, which Jaffe told Wired they don't expect to even be enough to power a light bulb.

However, if the space plane experiment goes as hoped, it'd be a proof-of-concept for space-based solar power — and that could have enormous implications.

While solar panels can only collect sunlight during daylight hours, a satellite could do it continuously. It could then beam the energy down to any part of the Earth that needs it.

"If we could capture the boundless sunlight in space, where it's brighter than anywhere on Earth, (we could) send it to places that are difficult and expensive to get energy to today," Jaffe said in a 2019 press release.

"If we can do that in an effective way and do for energy what GPS has done for navigation, it would truly be revolutionary," he added.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at tips@freethink.com.

Up Next

Solar Energy
24/7 Solar Power is On The Horizon
solar power
Solar Energy
24/7 Solar Power is On The Horizon
Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory are planning new solar power tech that collects energy in outer space and laser-beams it back to Earth.

Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory are planning new solar power tech that collects energy in outer space and laser-beams it back to Earth.

Dispatches
Organic Solar Is (Finally) Efficient Enough to Compete
Organic Solar Is (Finally) Efficient Enough to Compete
Dispatches
Organic Solar Is (Finally) Efficient Enough to Compete
Reliable power straight from the sun looks more achievable than ever.

Reliable power straight from the sun looks more achievable than ever.

Uprising
Can Humans Figure Out How Deep Learning AI Thinks?
deep learning ai
Uprising
Can Humans Figure Out How Deep Learning AI Thinks?
Deep learning AI is becoming more complex, capable, and impenetrable, but these scientists are attempting to break the black box.

Deep learning AI is becoming more complex, capable, and impenetrable, but these scientists are attempting to break the black box.

Public Health
Microbe in Mosquito Guts Completely Blocks Malaria Parasite
Malaria Parasite
Public Health
Microbe in Mosquito Guts Completely Blocks Malaria Parasite
Scientists have discovered a microbe in the guts of mosquitoes that appears to prevent the most common malaria parasite from infecting the insects.

Scientists have discovered a microbe in the guts of mosquitoes that appears to prevent the most common malaria parasite from infecting the insects.

The Sound of Science
This Electronic Musician Is Transforming the Soundscape of Hospitals
This Electronic Musician Is Transforming the Soundscape of Hospitals
The Sound of Science
This Electronic Musician Is Transforming the Soundscape of Hospitals
Trained as a classical pianist, ambient artist Yoko Sen is on a mission to redesign medical devices' beeps and buzzes and save us from alarm fatigue.

Trained as a classical pianist, ambient artist Yoko Sen is on a mission to redesign medical devices' beeps and buzzes and save us from alarm fatigue.

Dispatches
Spraying Bacteria onto the Skin Can Treat Eczema
Spraying Bacteria onto the Skin Can Treat Eczema
Dispatches
Spraying Bacteria onto the Skin Can Treat Eczema
The bacteria in your microbiome ward off infections and help keep your skin healthy.

The bacteria in your microbiome ward off infections and help keep your skin healthy.

Coded
How an Exiled Cryptographer is Protecting Journalists in His Native Ethiopia
How an Exiled Cryptographer is Protecting Journalists in His Native Ethiopia
Watch Now
Coded
How an Exiled Cryptographer is Protecting Journalists in His Native Ethiopia
An exiled blogger teaches journalists in his native Ethiopia how to avoid capture
Watch Now

In Ethiopia, the main prison is divided into eight zones. Many refer to the rest of the country as “Zone 9.” But Endalk Chala is fighting back. Chala moonlights as an encryption expert, helping bloggers in his native Ethiopia escape capture and torture.

Superhuman
The World's Most Advanced Bionic Arm
The World's Most Advanced Bionic Arm
Superhuman
The World's Most Advanced Bionic Arm
A fascinating interview with Michael P. McLoughlin, the chief engineer of research and exploratory development at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
By Mike Riggs

A fascinating interview with Michael P. McLoughlin about bionic arms for amputees and the world of advanced prosthetics. McLoughlin is the chief engineer of research and exploratory development at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.