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Astronaut Tim Peake says space-based solar farms on the horizon

21 September 2023

The British astronaut has declared the concept of solar farms in space "absolutely viable".

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

First reported in The Guardian, Tim Peake has noted that declining launch costs and advancements in rocket technology, particularly SpaceX's innovations, could pave the way for solar power generation in space. 

ESA's foray into space-based solar power plants has seen significant progress this year, marked by the commissioning of two "concept studies". The agency aims to present a compelling business case to the European Union by 2025, laying the groundwork for a potentially transformative energy source.

Peake, known for being the first European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut from Britain to visit the International Space Station (ISS), revealed that ESA's calculations indicate that space-based solar farms would become financially viable when cargoes could be launched at a cost of $1,000 (£807) per kilogram or less. 

Historically, the cost of such launches has hovered around $2,700 per kilogram, making it prohibitively expensive. However, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and Starship rockets are poised to change the game.

"The Falcon Heavy can reduce that to about $1,500, and the so-called Starship brings that down by an order of magnitude to about $300 per kilogram," Peake explained. What sets these rockets apart is their reusability: unlike traditional launchers, Falcon Heavy and Starship are designed to return to Earth intact, reducing costs significantly and making space more accessible for large-scale projects.

The Falcon Heavy is already in operation, successfully transporting payloads such as satellites into space. Meanwhile, Starship, though it exploded shortly after launching during its unmanned test flight in April, remains in active development, offering the promise of further cost reduction in future launches.

ESA's Solaris programme represents a key initiative in the quest for space-based solar power. Under this programme, solar panels would be launched into space, each equipped with robotic capabilities to link up with others, effectively constructing a solar farm in orbit. 

Unlike terrestrial solar farms that are limited by nighttime and adverse weather conditions, space-based panels can continuously harness the sun's energy.

The groundbreaking aspect of space-based solar power is not just generating energy in space, but transmitting it back to Earth. Peake envisions this as taking place through the use of microwaves, offering a clean and virtually limitless energy source from space. Such developments align with the global push for sustainable and renewable energy sources.

In a testament to the potential of space-based solar power, UK universities and tech companies received £4.3 million in government funding in 2023 to develop this technology further. A government-commissioned report in 2020 had already identified space-based solar farms as a potential game-changer, capable of providing a substantial portion of the UK's electricity needs while contributing to a zero-carbon future.

However, it's crucial to recognise that the implementation of space-based solar farms is a long-term endeavour, unlikely to address immediate global energy challenges. The practicalities of constructing and maintaining such facilities in orbit, as well as developing the necessary infrastructure for energy transmission, present significant hurdles.

Nonetheless, Tim Peake's enthusiastic endorsement of space-based solar power, coupled with the pioneering work of organisations like ESA and SpaceX, highlights a promising future for this innovative approach to clean energy. As technology continues to advance and costs fall, the dream of harvesting solar power from space inches closer to becoming a reality.

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