China's massive 2-GW orbital solar power station just got a lot closer

Taking solar power to a whole new level.
Derya Ozdemir
Artist's impression of a solar power satelliteEuropean Space Agency

China is looking to space for solar energy, unlike NASA, which shelved the idea due to its complexity and cost two decades ago.

According to South China Morning Post, China is slated to begin the first phase of an ambitious solar power plant development in 2028, two years ahead of the original schedule. When the time comes, a trial satellite orbiting the Earth at a distance of roughly 248 miles (400km) will be used to test the technology, a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Chinese Space Science and Technology on Thursday explains.

The project will beam energy back to Earth from space, potentially reshaping the way every person on the planet receives electricity.

Science fiction becomes reality?

The idea of bringing solar power projects to space was popularized by the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1941. Then, more than two decades ago, a similar energy project had been proposed by NASA but was never developed. Today, the U.K. government is already considering building a $20.8-billion orbital solar power station, with a U.K. Member of Parliament recently suggesting SpaceX might take the proposed solar satellite up to orbit.

Back in 2021, we reported that the tests for the Chinese space solar power plant, which will take place in Chongqing city in Southwestern China, would lead to constructing a huge 1-megawatt solar power station in space by 2030. Now, China has brought forward the solar power plant space station launch.

The technology's benefits include the fact that it is always solar noon in space with full sun, and collecting surfaces may receive more powerful sunlight than on Earth.

The primary idea is to have a space station equipped with a solar array that converts solar energy into electrical energy. The energy would then be transmitted to Earth through a microwave transmitter or laser emitter. According to the researchers, the satellite would "convert solar energy to microwaves or lasers and direct the energy beams to various targets, including fixed locations on Earth and moving satellites".

The team hopes to limit the amount of energy lost as it travels through the atmosphere by employing microwaves. And as the world's largest manufacturer of solar panel cells, China also intends to increase the station's output after launch steadily.

China's massive 2-GW orbital solar power station just got a lot closer
China's space solar power plant plan. Source: Dong Shiwei, National Key Laboratory of Science and Technology on Space Microwave, China Academy of Space Technology in Xian

The timeline

China wants to construct the massive orbiting solar-power space station in four stages. Two years after the first test flight, it plans to launch a more robust plant to a geosynchronous orbit of 22,000 miles in 2030. Although a test station would only produce 10 kilowatts of power, the larger power plant would be capable of transferring 10 megawatts to select military and civilian users by 2035. Then, by 2050, China hopes that the station will be large enough to allow for an output of roughly two gigatonnes.

As of this writing, it's unclear how much it'll cost to launch and run the entire space power station. And undoubtedly, numerous essential engineering challenges need to be overcome first. Nevertheless, it can be said that China is well on its way to testing a potentially game-changing technology that may allow it to capture solar energy at any time of day and change the fabric of the energy industry.

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