What science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote in his 1941 short story “Reason” speculating space stations to transmit energy to Earth using microwave beams may become a reality soon, if Chinese scientists have their way to build ambitious solar-power generating station somewhere up in the sky.
Wang Xiji, a scientist who had spent 50 years on the concept at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an International Academy of Astronautics member, says Asimov’s fiction is possible and revealed that China is planning to ahead with the idea.
The huge solar power station to be built 36,000 kilometres above the ground will not only solve the energy crisis on the earth but also save the planet from the vagaries of greenhouse gases and pollution, says an upbeat Wang, whose dream concept is gaining currency of late.
The enormity of the project is, however, too huge surpassing the known mega-projects like the US Apollo project or the US-Russian joint project — the International Space Station. So huge that it may look like a super spacecraft on a geosynchronous orbit with its solar panels extending more than 6 kilometres in length each.
The solar panels will store the energy which will be converted to microwaves or lasers and transmitted to a collector on Earth, explain scientists.
Wang, 93, who is a veteran in the concept told Xinhua: “An economically viable space power station would be really huge, with the total area of the solar panels reaching 5 to 6 sq km. Maybe people on Earth could see it in the sky at night, like a star.”
Moreover, space-based solar panels produce ten times as much electricity as ground-based panels produce per unit area, says Duan Baoyan, another member of the team at the Chinese Academy. “If we have space solar power technology, hopefully we could solve the energy crisis on Earth,” Duan said.
But there is more than that. Mere solar energy and cheaper energy is not the focus but it can change the strategic power balance on Earth. Wang reiterates that the first inventor of the technology “could occupy the future energy market. So it’s of great strategic significance.”
In the past, Japan and the US did explore the possibility and dropped the idea due to enormity of the project that enhances energy production by just 10 times. Japan has already made lead in the development of wireless power transmission technology.
Secondly, the weight of such space power station would be anywhere in the range of 10,000 tons and you need not just a rocket launcher but an asteroid to carry it to space. So, the question is whether China is willing to undertake the challenge.
“We need a cheap heavy-lift launch vehicle,” says Wang. “We also need to make very thin and light solar panels. The weight of the panel must be less than 200 grams per square metre.”
On the positive note, Wang says: “When space solar energy becomes our main energy, people will no longer worry about smog or the greenhouse effect.”