China Wants to Build a Huge Orbital Solar Power Station in Space

In theory, an orbital power station can harness solar energy 24/7.
Chris Young
China orbital solar farm
Orbital Solar FarmArkadiusz Warguła/iStock

China is on the verge of testing a potentially revolutionary technology that would allow it to harvest large amounts of solar energy at any time of day. The method would use an orbital station to send a powerful beam of solar energy down to Earth from space, a report by the South China Morning Post explains. 

All going as planned, the tests, which will take place in Chongqing city in Southwestern China, will lead to the construction of a huge 1-megawatt solar power station in space by 2030. China, the world's largest manufacturer of solar panel cells, also plans to gradually grow that station's output after launch, with the goal of increasing its capacity to 1 gigawatt by 2049.

$15.4 million test facility will be ready this year

The construction of a $15.4 million ground testing facility for the technology in Chongqing city was halted three years ago amid debate over the project's cost, feasibility, and safety. But in the end, it was restarted in June, according to the local government's website. Now construction on the testing facility is expected to be finished by the end of this year.

The facility will test technologies that would allow a powerful energy beam to efficiently penetrate any cloud coverage and also carefully pinpoint a ground station so as not to cause any damage to nearby property or citizens. 

The idea of a solar space station was first proposed by scientists in the 1960s. The technology has the potential to circumvent several of the limitations of traditional solar farms. Most importantly, starting at an altitude of 36,000 km (22,400 miles), a geostationary solar panel station would be able to avoid the Earth's shadow and see direct sunlight 24 hours a day. From space, a power station can also harvest more electricity, as the Earth's atmosphere reflects or absorbs nearly half of the energy in sunlight before it reaches any ground-stationed solar panels.

Early airship tests could pave the way for massive solar space station

By sending harvested energy down to a facility in the form of high-frequency microwaves, the technology would allow it to reach Earth with only minimal energy loss (roughly 2 percent). The idea actually originated in experiments conducted by Nikola Tesla in the late 19th century, and it has led to the advent of firms, such as New Zealand-based Emrod, promising wireless power transmission, as well as companies trying to kickstart wireless charging roads for electric vehicles here on Earth.

Now, researchers at the new test facility, which is under construction in the Bishan district of Chongqing, will aim to prove that this wireless transfer of power does work over the long distances required. To begin with, they will conduct experiments using airships and hot air balloons to beam energy in high-frequency microwave beams down to Earth. They have successfully conducted tests from 300 meters (980 feet) above the ground using a hot air balloon and they aim to conduct 20km-range experiments using an airship after the construction of the facility is complete.

The experimental zone for the technology will be approximately 2 hectares (2,000 square meters) and will be surrounded by a clearance zone five times that size. Locals will not be allowed to enter this area for their own safety, a district government statement explains. A lot is still yet to be ironed out, such as the potential effects of such a high-frequency energy beam on communications, air traffic, and the wellbeing of nearby residents. However, if the researchers behind the project manage to pull it off, they will have smashed past the limitations of solar energy by literally sending it beyond the stratosphere.

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