Solar Farms in Space, a New Viable Method for Renewable Energy?

Major Tim Peake, a seasoned British astronaut, has expressed support for the concept of space-based solar farms, asserting that it is rapidly becoming a feasible idea. Major Peake emphasised that the decreasing costs associated with launching heavy payloads into space now open the door for intricate structures like solar power farms to be deployed in outer space, potentially yielding substantial energy resources.

As the first European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut from Britain to venture to the International Space Station, Peake underscored the importance of assessing the economic viability of such endeavours. He stated, “ultimately, it comes down to crunching the numbers. Launching significant amounts of hardware into low Earth orbit is steadily becoming a practical reality.”

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The ESA has been actively exploring the notion of space-based solar power facilities and has initiated two “concept studies” for this purpose in the current year. Their goal is to present a compelling business case to the European Union by 2025.

Peake revealed that the ESA’s calculations indicate space-based solar farms would be financially viable once the cost of launching payloads drops to $1,000 (£807) per kilogram or less. He noted that the current cost stands at approximately $2,700 per kilogram but anticipates cost reductions with the deployment of SpaceX’s rockets, including the Falcon Heavy, which can bring the cost down to about $1,500, and the Starship, which could reduce it to around $300 per kilogram.

The Falcon Heavy is already in use for transporting payloads such as satellites into space, while the Starship is still under development, with an unmanned test flight experiencing an explosion shortly after liftoff. Notably, these new rockets are designed to return to Earth intact and are reusable, eliminating the need to build an entirely new rocket for each launch and consequently reducing overall costs.

The ESA’s Solaris program aims to launch solar panels into space, with each panel programmed to autonomously link up with others to construct a functional solar farm. In contrast to Earth-based solar farms that are limited by daylight and adverse weather conditions, space-based panels can continually capture the sun’s energy.

Peake elaborated on the potential of this concept, stating, “if we can establish solar farms in space, we can transmit that energy to ground stations via microwaves. This means that clean, boundless energy from space becomes a realistic prospect.”

In recent news, it was announced that UK universities and technology firms would receive £4.3 million in government funding to advance space-based solar power research. This funding follows a 2020 UK government-commissioned report that highlighted the potential of space-based solar farms to provide an energy output equivalent to that of a large power station, potentially supplying up to a quarter of the country’s electricity demands.

Over time, this technology could evolve into an unlimited and consistently carbon-neutral energy source. However, such developments are expected to require many years and are unlikely to address the world’s pressing energy challenges in the immediate future.