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A solar power farm floating in space

People walking across a bridge with the sun behind them

HUMANITY’S FIRST OFF-WORLD solar power farm is back on track, scientists reported this week.

The massive device, floating between earth and the sun, will one day collect power in huge amounts at high speed, with no clouds or atmosphere to get in the way – if all goes to plan.

Solar power will be collected from above the atmosphere. Picture: China Daily

The power will then be beamed down to earth to replace fossil fuels with a free, clean, ever-flowing source of energy.

The project was announced in February 2019 ago in Nature, the world’s top academic science journal, aiming for a 2021 start.

But after several delays over questions about feasibility and cost – this sort of project has never been done before – work has resumed, said Prof. Yuanchang Zhong (right), of Chongqing University, quoted in China Science Daily on Monday this week.

The first part of the project, a facility in Chongqing, Central China, will be completed by the end of the year, the publication said. The center will receive the power from space and transmit it to the grid. The publication gave no date for the launch of the space elements of the project.

The ultimate plan is to send power to Chongqing city from the collection facility away from the urban area in Bishan district. Picture: Jerry Wang/ Unsplash

The ambitious plan, which would have been described as science fiction just a few years ago, is an attempt to overcome the main problems of earth-bound solar panels, which stop working on cloudy days and at night.

The scientific challenges are immense, scientists say. “The idea of space-based solar power stations has been around for decades, and scientists in the United States and Japan have been working on proof-of-principle technologies,” said Nature. “But the cost of launching massive industrial-scale stations, which could weigh up to 1,000 tonnes, is a major obstacle.”

The evolution of 3D printing, in which lightweight, plastic elements can be constructed, is one of the methods Chinese scientists have been experimenting with to solve the problem.

‘Residents could not live within 5km range of the ground receiving station’

Stephen Chen, SCMP

The energy farm in space would need an extremely sophisticated flight control system to maintain its aim at a tiny spot on Earth, said Stephen Chen of the South China Morning Post today. 

“Another hazard would be radiation. According to one calculation by a research team with Beijing Jiaotong University last year, residents could not live within a 5km range of the ground receiving station for the 1GW Chinese solar plant in space.”

The idea of beaming electricity invisibly across distances is credited to Nikola Tesla in the late 1800s. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov pushed the idea of gathering solar energy from above the clouds in the 1940s.

The idea of collecting energy was dismissed by NASA as interesting but impractical.

Recently, scientists in China experimented by receiving wireless energy transmitted from a balloon floating 300 metres (980 feet) in the air. The ultimate plan will be to launch an airship which will be able to transmit solar energy from the 20 km, the China Science Daily report said.

Nasa experimented with the idea but dismissed it as impractical decades ago. Yet now, scientists in Japan, Russia and the UK are said to be revisiting the idea, in addition to China.

Main picture by Ishan/ Unsplash

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