Equipment that could one day be launched into space to beam solar energy back to Earth was successfully tested this week by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), according to a report by Space News.
The terrestrial test was conducted by major aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman as part of a US$100 million contract with AFRL, originally signed back in 2018. The project is currently known as the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) and it will use a spacecraft called “Arachne” to put a new kind of solar power cell into orbit. The cell is currently known as the “sandwich tile” (the technical denomination is “Space Solar Power RF Integrated Tile Experiment” or SSPRITE), and its purpose is to convert solar power into a radio frequency that is beamed into a forward operating base back on Earth. A rectifying antenna can turn the radio frequency into usable power.
Given the institutional structure through which the project is being funded, its primary application is currently focused on defense and military development, where the tactical advantages of providing power to remote locations through space-based means far outweighs any economic disadvantages that this kind of energy might currently represent. However, current market broadcasts point to a decrease in prices for all space launches and services over the coming decade as this sector of the global economy continues to grow and develop under the guidance of both established public sector players and private sector entrepreneurship.
“Space solar” power could not only prove more efficient and powerful than ground-based solar power; it could also prove impervious to varying weather conditions. Its inherent potential for continuity could remove the need for extensive energy storage infrastructure development, thus further lowering its total cost of implementation. On the other hand, the possible shelf life of orbiting modules might not extend past 20 years, which would mean that the long-term operation of these assets could represent a costly decommissioning, de-orbiting and relaunching process that might make the technology permanently unfeasible. However, the success of this test represents a crucial step toward the answering of such questions.
The hardware test used a “solar simulation” to mimic the intensity of sunlight and it proved that the “sandwich” tile does indeed perform the necessary conversion to effectively provide solar energy. The Arachne spacecraft is currently scheduled to launch and be tested in orbit as early as 2025.