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China: ambitious plan to build energy plant in space

Beijing is working to develop a solar energy plant in space that could one day produce enough power back to Earth to light up a whole city.

When scientists could overcome the formidable technical challenges, the project would represent a monumental leap in combating the Earth’s addiction to dangerous power sources which worsen air pollution and global warming.

A space-based solar power station could also provide an alternative to the current generation of earthbound and relatively ineffective renewable energy sources.

Scientists had previously thought space solar plants (SSPs) would be prohibitively expensive.

But with Beijing pledging to invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($367 billion) in renewable power generation — solar, wind, hydro and nuclear — by 2020, China might just have the financial firepower.

The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation hopes to be operating a commercially viable solar space station by 2050, according to a recent report in the country’s official newspaper Science and Technology Daily.

Energy could be beamed to Earth via microwaves or lasers. But Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology, warned that there are huge hazards potentially posed to humans, plants and animals thats why that process must be examined.

Well-known fact that renewable energy is the key issue in tackling climate change, but people are afraid that lasers produced at an SSP could potentially become weapon what gives Beijing a lethal military instrument.

Challenging program

China entered the space race quite late – it didn’t send its first satellite into orbit until 1970 – but its program has seriously matured in the past few years, hitting milestones including a manned spaceflight and a historic first landing of a rover on the far side of the moon.

But during the presidency of Xi Jinping, PRC has invested billions in building up its space program. The plans are getting more ambitious by the day. At the 2019 opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Sunday, the chief designer of China’s lunar exploration told of plans to send a rover to Mars. Wu Weiren declared that a probe would be sent to the red planet in 2020.

How it works

Space solar energy is the biggest potential energy source available to humans and could supply nearly all the electrical needs of every person on our planet.

The technology for harnessing solar power in space has been around since the 1960s, says Peter Schubert, director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Components, including solar panels and technology for converting electricity for transmission, would be blasted into space where they would be assembled.

The completed solar farm would be placed in a geostationary orbit over a receiving station on Earth. It would transmit the energy – either in the form of a laser or as microwaves – to the Earth base, where it could be reconverted to electricity and distributed via the grid.

Experts estimate that a fully operational solar array would have to be huge – at least 2 square kilometers – to produce 1 gigawatt of power, JAXA’s Fujimoto says.

Its construction would also present huge logistical issues.

“(An) SSP would be assembled piece-by-piece over repeated launches and dockings,” according to the JAXA. “The construction of the structure by crew members would be prohibitively expensive and unsafe. A key phase of the program will be to develop robotic systems capable of assembling all of the components of the large orbital structure autonomously.”

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation plans to launch small solar satellites that can harness energy in space as soon as 2021. Then it will test larger plants capable of advanced functions, such as beaming energy back to Earth via lasers.

A receiving station will be built in Xian, around 500 miles northeast of the Chinese city of Chongqing. The city is a regional space hub where a facility to develop the solar power farms has been founded.

By 2050, the company plans that a full-sized space-based solar plant would be ready for commercial use, the Chinese media report said.

While experts believe the microwaves beamed from the solar farms would be about as intense as the sun’s rays on a summer’s day, Pang says more research is needed into the potential long-term effects on the ecology, atmosphere, and organisms.

In addition to providing constant renewable energy to the planet, a space solar power plant could, in theory, focus its beam outward and power spacecraft, obviating the need for solar cell wings and greatly increasing power levels and control accuracy.

The energy beams could also direct power to remote areas or even dissipate destructive weather systems like typhoons.

But there is a potentially more worrying application.

Scientists underline that coherent radiation from a laser is so far different from the microwave or radio wave approach and if it’s weaponized a laser could burn a city to the ground in a matter of minutes or hours.

A satellite in geostationary orbit has a view of about one third of the planet, which would present a huge tactical advantage for one country. Logically no large nation is willing or allowing another nation to put a 5 GW laser in orbit. Because everything is hackable and that poses big risks for nations and the whole planet.