A Twisting Tale of Space Solar Power

by Jason Major on May 29, 2012

The University of Strathclyde's Dr. Massimiliano Vasile with a prototype of a space solar power SAM module

The dream of clean, consistent and renewable space solar power may become a reality, thanks to new research being done at The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

The concept of space solar power — gathering solar energy with satellites in low-Earth orbit and “beaming” it down to collection stations on the ground — has been around for decades, but technology restrictions and prohibitive costs have kept it in the R&D phases, with some doubting that it will ever happen at all.

Now, researcher Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, of the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has announced his team’s development of modular devices that could be used to gather solar energy in orbit, working atop an experimental “space web” structure developed by graduate students at the university’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.”

– Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, University of Strathclyde

The web structure, part of an experiment called Suaineadh — which means “twisting” in Scottish Gaelic (and I believe it’s pronounced soo-in-ade but correct me if I’m wrong) — is made of a central hub that would go into orbit and release a square web of material that’s weighted at the corners. The whole apparatus would spin, keeping its shape via centrifugal force and providing a firm structure that other devices could build upon and attach to.

The Suaineadh experiment was successfully launched on March 19 aboard a Swedish sounding rocket and while it appears that the components worked as expected, communication was lost after ejection. As a result the central hub — with all its data — couldn’t be located after landing. A recovery mission is planned for this summer.

Meanwhile, Dr. Vasile is still confident that his team’s space solar project, called SAM, can help provide space solar power to remote locations.

A single inflatable SAM cell (M. Vasile)

“The current project, called SAM (Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane) will test the deployment of an ultra light cellular structure that can change shape once deployed,” Dr. Vasile explains. “The structure is made of cells that are self-inflating in vacuum and can change their volume independently through nanopumps.

“The independent control of the cells would allow us to morph the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it on solar arrays. The same structure can be used to build large space systems by assembling thousands of small individual units.”

By collecting solar energy in space, where the constraints of day and night or weather variability are nonexistent, the satellites could ultimately beam clean energy down to otherwise off-the-grid locales.

“In areas like the Sahara desert where quality solar power can be captured, it becomes very difficult to transport this energy to areas where it can be used,” says Dr. Vasile. “However, our research is focusing on how we can remove this obstacle and use space based solar power to target difficult to reach areas.

“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.”

If successful, the Suaineadh/SAM project could develop into a source of renewable energy for not only small, remote locations but also neighborhoods, towns and perhaps even entire cities.

“Initially, smaller satellites will be able to generate enough energy for a small village but we have the aim, and indeed the technology available, to one day put a large enough structure in space that could gather energy that would be capable of powering a large city,” Dr. Vasile says.

Read more on the University of Strathclyde Glasgow’s site here.

Image credits: The University of Strathclyde. The project is part of a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) study. 

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: