In what would be one of the most ambitious space engineering projects ever, China hopes to build an orbiting solar power plant.
China’s insatiable demand for renewable energy will see it turn to outer space as part of a plan that sounds straight out of science-fiction. According to China’s Science and Technology Daily (via The Sydney Morning Herald), scientists and engineers in the city of Chongqing are constructing an early experimental space power plant.
A full-scale power plant would greatly exceed the capabilities of one on Earth as without the planet’s atmosphere it would receive six times the amount of solar energy and never be affected by a day/night cycle. A researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation, Pang Zhihao, said that the concept could provide “an inexhaustible source of clean energy for humans”.
In concept, the orbiting power plant would convert the solar energy into electricity that would be beamed back to Earth using advanced photonics or through microwave transmission. Although the researchers admitted that the long-term ramifications of such a transmission to the Earth’s atmosphere and ecology will need to be studied further.
In the meantime, the team in Chongqing is looking to build and launch small to medium-sized solar power stations into Earth’s stratosphere between 2021 and 2025 and, if successful, would look to build a 1MW power station in 2030.
However, the scale of this project would far surpass anything else in orbit right now. At a weight of approximately 1,000 tonnes, it would be nearly twice as heavy as the International Space Station. Given the cost and complexity of building such a structure in orbit, Pang and his fellow researchers are looking at methods that involve robots and 3D printers.
The announcement of such a project only increases China’s reputation as the next big space superpower, having recently landed the Chang’e 4 craft and Yutu 2 rover on the far side of the moon, something which had never been done before.