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Is orbital photovoltaics viable? NASA will investigate

NASA has launched a study to try to determine whether it should look again at the question of orbital photovoltaics, as several countries are already considering.

NASA has just announced the start of a program which aims to once again study the viability of a space photovoltaic power plant. It is a concept that seeks to collect solar energy directly in orbit before repatriating it to earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation, all without an ounce of greenhouse gases.

The idea is not new, far from it; it even dates back several decades. But this technology once presented as the future of energy has lost momentum as it has come up against numerous technical obstacles.

But it could well come back to the fore very soon, propelled by the rapid development of renewable energy and aerospace. In recent years, several institutions have started to explore the idea again. We can notably cite our neighbors across the Channel, who recently launched the Space Energy Initiative (SEI).

An exploratory and cautious approach for the sake of conscience

This vast government project, which brings together many research institutions and industry giants, seeks to take the lead in this technology today. Together, they hope to deploy the world’s first orbital solar farm by 2035. And they are not alone: ​​other countries such as Japan, India and China have also started to advance their pawns in anticipation.

Now, these projects seem less far-fetched today than they once were; enough to revive the interest of the American administration. The managers in charge of the SEI do not hesitate to affirm that the concept is now mature from a technological point of view, and that all that remains is to put the means into it. On the other hand, NASA is much more cautious than the English government, and speaks more willingly of “study the viability”.

Something new under the sun

Technology has evolved, system feasibility has changed over time”, explains Nikolai Joseph, head of NASA’s technology, policy and strategy office. “This will allow us to estimate how much NASA should invest in space solar energy”, he specifies.

NASA had already taken an interest in the concept in the 1970s. However, it ended up throwing in the towel, intimidated by the staggering price of the project. But since then, the situation has changed. Global warming is now just knocking on the door; he now attacks it with the violence of a berserk Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

In this context, there is no longer any question of taking half measures. Any potentially revolutionary technology on the renewable energy side must therefore imperatively receive the attention it deserves, if only for the sake of conscience. Moreover, with the explosion of aerospace in recent years, the average cost of launches continues to drop, which makes the idea more and more interesting.

And NASA is well aware of this. It therefore wishes to offer a new chance to this concept rather than taking the slightest risk of missing out on a small energy revolution. “I have the feeling that it is more or less an obligation for NASA to take an interest in it”, explains Nikolai Joseph. “The idea has been around for so long, but it still hasn’t been destroyed and has persisted until today”, he justifies.

The British Space Energy Initiative strongly believes in its project, and unlike NASA, it has already advanced its pawns. © Space Energy Initiative

NASA has a delay train

An eventuality that has great difficulty passing among some very patriotic observers. Some people just can’t imagine Uncle Sam being behind on potentially revolutionary technology.

It just doesn’t make sense for the United States not to care.” thunders Peter Garretson, a former Air Force officer who led a study on the subject in 2007. “Even if we started from the principle that space photovoltaics would not be profitable, the fact that we get out of the race without trying to do something that this global question makes us look like idiots”, he insists, visibly stung by his country’s lack of initiative on this issue.

Garretson will therefore probably be delighted that this subject is making a comeback on NASA’s table. But like the rest of the public, he will have to measure his expectations. Because even if the situation seems more favorable than 50 years ago, there are still many unanswered questions; it is not for nothing that NASA speaks explicitly of studying its “viability“.

Even though transmission technology has advanced, many observers still have doubts about the technology that will repatriate this energy. Technically, it is a question of converting it into microwaves which are then recovered by a gigantic receiver placed on Earth. They will then be transformed back into electricity that can be used on our planet.

A concept far from unanimous

In addition to the problem of energy loss related to this double conversion, the officials of the SEI claim that this ray would be harmless; but many old studies have warned engineers of ecological and logistical risks, especially for migratory birds and aviation.

There are also doubts about the pure and simple economic viability of the project. Some observers also claim that the structure simply could not become profitable before the photovoltaic cells reach the end of their life.

It will therefore be very interesting to follow the result of this study, whatever the conclusions. If it considers the project viable, it is more than likely she decides to set up her own program as soon as possible. Many other institutions could also be convinced and follow suit; we could then witness a considerable transformation of the renewable energy sector.

And if she considers it a waste of time and resources, the situation will probably be even more interesting. All eyes will then turn to those responsible for the Space Energy Initiative, who firmly believe in their project. In this case, we can already expect a extremely heated debate, knowing the stakes and the pharaonic sums already committed to the project. Case to follow!

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