Space plane experiment could lead to 24/7 solar power

It’s the first step toward beaming microwaves back from space.

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.”

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 [email protected].

Related
Fusion startup plans to shoot space junk with lasers
Japanese startup EX-Fusion plans to test whether lasers it is developing for nuclear fusion can remove space junk from orbit.
Google AI is searching the world for methane leaks from space
Google will provide computing resources to MethaneSAT, a project to identify climate-harming methane leaks from space.
US startup makes history with stressful, landmark moon landing
Intuitive Machines just made history with the first private moon landing — and the mission was a nailbiter.
T-Minus: Water discovered on asteroids, first space factory comes home, and more
Freethink’s weekly countdown of the biggest space news, featuring the return of Varda’s space factory, a Russian space weapon, and more.
Aerospace engineer explains why AI can’t replace air traffic controllers
For everyone’s safety, humans are likely to remain a necessary central component of air traffic control for a long time to come.
Up Next
radiative cooling
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories