China has been making moves on the Russian/American dominance of the space race for some time. When NASA fumbled the pass, through lack of government funding, China landed an impressive touchdown; they have begun building a renewable energy project in space.
Ex-NASA boffin, John Mankins, came up with the idea to build solar-powered space stations and interplanetary transport vehicles over twenty years ago. He now runs a private aerospace firm that he owns himself. He has been trying to work out how to funnel electricity directly to earth from outer space for some time.
The country or private individual who manages how to do it (continual, free power) would reshape the way the utility business is run. It was a noble aspiration, probably inspired by the lacklustre choice of utility services we have on earth. Beaming power from space would lower the cost of space travel, and have the side benefit of being an extremely cheap electricity source on our own planet.
Mankins ran with his idea to Congress, and it garnered immediate support from the Bush administration in the early 2000s. The National Academy of Sciences was very keen on the idea. But the momentum petered out, and the brilliant concept was shelved. China, however, was utterly unfazed by the space jam and have taken the notion and run with it.
China in Space
China accomplished spaceflight in 2003 and is close to having a permanent station up there as well (scheduled for 2022). This is small potatoes when compared to its latest announcement: Within the next decade, China plans to have a high-voltage power transmission in outer space. Wireless energy tests for a space-based solar energy powered system is also in the works.
The launch of small to medium sized solar energy projects in space is planned by China for 2021 and 2025. They will be placed in the stratosphere to generate electricity. This will be followed by a solar power station capable of generating up to one megawatt of electricity by 2030. A commercial-scale power plant fed by the sun’s rays in planned for 2050.
This is Not a Test
Political posturing aside, China has become transparent about its plans in the last five years. They are serious about it, have hired the most renowned scientists and a workable technical blueprint. Mankins has gone on the record saying that they can do it by 2030.
Thinking about what a space-based solar power station could do is exciting stuff. It would capture the sun’s energy that doesn’t make it into the earth’s atmosphere and channel it to our planet via laser beams. China has announced that this power source has two big advantages over other energy supplies:
- It will offer an energy supply constantly
- The energy will be of a higher intensity than that of earth-based solar farms
This is in direct contrast to the solar and wind power farms on earth. They are subject to the availability and presence of wind and sun. This intermittency is what has perplexed many solar farmers.
Harnessing the energy from the sun has long been a science fiction staple. NASA has made a statement regarding what power sources they would consider for settlements on other planets. They chose to back the Kilopower project: a compact, lightweight nuclear fission power system.
Mankins said that the problem the developers faced when they were tackling the concept at NASA was the constant evolution of new technology consistently made the layouts obsolete in a very short span of time. Because of the efforts of space fans such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, it is far easier now to launch the parts into space to assemble a solar power station.
The U.S. military has been given $178 million to explore the concept of solar energy stations in the stratosphere. They possibly have the most to gain from not having to rely on local energy sources when making advances into enemy territory.
Laser Beams Concentrated on Earth – Is it Even a Good Idea?
Mankins has stated that there are risks we may not even know about yet. A constant supply of cheap electricity given to every person on earth could end up tipping the temperature of the planet into the red and even passed it. It could even activate mutations and spillage into things that should not be contaminated with electricity.
The Chinese have considered all of these scruples too, no doubt, but have weighed it up against the benefits and space solar power won. A professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has gone on record as saying that at the rate solar power has taken over on earth already, this project may not even be necessary.
Solar power is being installed in thousands of homes every day. It has already had an effect on the sales of alternate energy sources. The downfall of energy supplies on earth, no matter from what source it comes, is their price.
If consumers are given the opportunity to get electricity cheaper from outer space, they will. So maybe China is on the right track, in the long-term anyway.