Image: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) is calling for new ideas for technologies and concepts to increase the feasibility of space-based solar energy.

Space is increasingly viewed as the next frontier for solar power. Solar power satellites can benefit from higher solar illumination unfiltered by the atmosphere or even permanent sunlight in some orbits. They, therefore, offer the possibility to transmit clean energy on up to 24/7 basis to users on Earth or elsewhere such as to remote users in space or on the Moon.

As such solar power satellites could supplement ground-based renewables or reduce the storage resources. With the ability to transmit to any place on Earth, they could support disaster recovery or electrification in remote locations.

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The concept of space-based solar power uses the wireless transmission of solar energy collected in space. However, although first described over a century ago and developments in some systems, they are not yet a reality. Such satellites are by design relatively large structures and require advances in several key technical areas that push the boundaries of what is currently feasible in space.

The call is aimed to address some of these issues. One of the most important ones is the efficient conversion of energy in space and its transmission by laser or microwave to Earth or elsewhere.

From the power system perspective, the area of interest in which ESA is looking for new ideas is the scaling and integration of space-based solar power into energy grids.

Others are novel system concepts for space-based solar power stations and subsystem concepts or technologies with the potential to substantially increase the technical or economic feasibility of space-based solar power.

New ideas that use the opportunities offered by in-space construction also are sought, as are concepts for precursor in-space demonstrations.

“The potential of this concept to contribute to long-term sustainable energy is very high,” says ESA Engineer Advenit Makaya, who is leading the hunt for ideas. “Not only would it generate clean energy, but it would also be very flexible – it could be integrated into power grids on Earth, but also used for exploration missions.”

ESA doesn’t specify how much it is investing in this programme but envisages three award paths. Co-funded research will receive sums up to €90,000, system studies up to €100,000 and early technology developments up to €175,000.