Solar power, long regarded as the leading contender among renewable sources of energy, has advanced considerably over the past couple of decades. Solar panels are more cost – effective than coal, gas and oil because the cost of producing and installing them has dropped substantially. Nevertheless some obstacles prevent energy from the sun from becoming widely used, including storage and distribution. Additionally there is the constant issue of intermittency, where arrays cannot collect power during the evenings and in poor weather.
These issues led to the concept of space-based solar power (SBSP), where satellites with solar arrays could generate solar power for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, sixty-five and three-hundred days a year. To test this technique, scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) recently launched a technology demonstrator to space. The project is called the space Solar energy Demonstrator (SSPD) and is going to evaluate the capability of the SBSP to collect clean energy as well as beam it back to Earth.
At 06: six am the SSPD was launched. 55 a.m. PST (09: 55 a.m. EST) on Tuesday, January 3rd, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket out of Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission (Transporter 6) was a dedicated rideshare that transported a number of small satellites to space and deposited them in a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). The 50 kilogram satellite (110 lbs) was carried by a Vigoride spacecraft (provided by the commercial space company Momentus) and consisted of three main experiments, each aimed at testing a different critical technology.
The Space Solar Power Project (SSPP) began in 2011 when Donald Bren – philanthropist, chairman of the Irvine Company, along with a life member of the Caltech Board of Trustees – and also Caltech’s then president Jean-Lou Chameau met to talk about the possibility for a space based solar energy research project. By 2013, Bren as well as his wife (Caltech trustee Brigitte Bren) began supplying the project with the Donald Bren Foundation, which will ultimately surpass USD 100 million. As Bren said in a recent Caltech press release::
“I’ve dreamed for a long time about how space-based solar energy could solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems,” he said. “I am thrilled right now to be working with Caltech’s excellent scientists as they race making that dream a reality,” he said.
Production of solar energy in space presents some severe challenges, even though solar cells have existed since the late 19th century. To begin with, solar panel systems are quite heavy and call for substantial wiring to transmit electricity, which makes them costly and difficult to launch. In order to meet up with these hurdles, the SSPP staff needed to create a satellite which was lightweight enough to allow for cost effective launches, but sturdy adequate to withstand the harsh environment of space. This demanded the vision as well as improvement of new technologies, structures, structures and materials.
The team sought the assistance of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which Caltech manages for NASA) along with other industrial space organizations in southern California. The outcome was 3 prototype testbeds inside the SSPD which were created as well as constructed by a group of thirty five PhD students, postdocs as well as research experts at Caltech. Caltech’s testing is going to begin in the coming weeks and it aims to finish an evaluation of SSPD’s performance in the next few months.
The ultimate aim is to develop as well as test technologies that will ultimately go into creating a kilometer wide satellite constellation, basically a power station in space. The 3 major tests consist of the Deployable on-orbit ultraLight Composite Experiment (DOLCE), ALBA and also the Microwave Array for power transfer at lower orbit (MAPLE). These experiments, based on Caltech, are going to do the following jobs:
DOLCE: A framework measuring approximately 3.5 square meters (6 x six feet) which displays the design, product packaging program, along with deployment mechanisms of the modular spacecraft.
ALBA: A group of thirty two various kinds of photovoltaic (PV) cells to permit an evaluation of the kinds of cells which are most effective in space. MAPLE: A number of flexible, light microwave power transmitters with accurate timing management selectively focuses the capability on 2 different receivers to demonstrate wireless energy transmission from space.
The fourth element is a set of electronics which communicates with the Vigoride computer and manages the 3 major experiments. A number of components may take a number of months to assess, while others will likely be examined within the next couple of weeks. It is going to take the organization approximately 6 months to run a test of the ALBA photovoltaics before they are able to decide which kind of PV technology is ideal for the purpose. The MAPLE experiment consists of a number of assessments intended to assess the performance of the device over time in various environments.
DOLCE – experiment features 2 cameras on deployable booms (with extra cameras on the consumer electronics box) which can monitor the experiment and transmit video to the Caltech – staff on Earth. Sergio Pellegrino, Caltech’s Joyce as well as Kent Kresa Professor of Civil Engineering and Aerospace, is the co-founder of SSPP along with a principal research scientist at JPL. When he explained:
DOLCE exhibits a new structure for solar powered spacecraft and phased antenna arrays. ” It makes use of the new generation of ultrathin composite materials to attain unprecedented effectiveness as well as convenience in packaging. Considering the advancements we’ve already made, we foresee applications to a number of future space missions. We intend to charge the deployment of DOLCE within a few days of obtaining a chance to access SSPD from Momentus. If DOLCE is effective, we ought to know it immediately. “
In the meantime, the MAPLE array is going to test the possibility of beaming electricity to receiving facilities on Earth via microwave arrays. Caltech Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering as well as Medical Engineering (and also co-director of SSPP) describe it to Ali Hajimiri:
The whole adaptable MAPLE array, in addition to its core wireless energy transfer electric chips and transmitting components, have been created from scratch. This wasn’t produced from items that you can purchase, as they did not exist. “This important reworking of the system out of the ground up is vital to see scalable solutions for SSPP,” it stated.
Having successful launch in their rearview, the Caltech staff and project executives are looking ahead to a number of challenges. The SBSP, and its capability to transmit power efficiently to the Earth, is not widely known. But that is the thought behind the test, and failure and success is going to be evaluated in a number of ways by the testbeds. The most crucial test for DOLCE is going to be the deployment and making certain the system deploys totally from its folded up to its open configuration.
A successful examination of ALBA will reveal which photovoltaic cells supply maximum efficiency in addition to performance in the extreme environment of space. Achievement for MAPLE will mean the demonstrable capability to transmit electricity when needed to particular locations Earthside. No matter the outcome, Hajimiri said, the fact that Caltech teams have produced a prototype that could be delivered to space is a tremendous achievement.
“this prototype is a significant step forward, regardless of what happens. It’s operating on Earth and has undergone the rigorous assessments which are needed for any mission to space. There’re still risks associated with it, but we have learned a whole lot and we have learned a great deal from it. “the area tests are going to provide us with lots of extra helpful information which will guide the project as we move ahead,’ he said.