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JAXA Looks to Space for Energy Production

Ground Station

SSPS Ground Station (JAXA)

SNA (Tsukuba) – The loss of public faith in nuclear energy since the March 11, 2011, triple disaster has once again put the Japanese nation on the hunt for new solutions to its vast energy needs. Many voices have called for the dramatic expansion of renewable energy systems such as solar, wind, and hydro as the medium- to long-term answer to reduce the contemporary dependency on nuclear, as well as on CO2-producing forms of energy like oil and gas.

Here at the Tsukuba Space Center of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), they are working on a project that one can easily imagine to be a late 21st century or early 22nd century answer to human energy needs – it is a Space Solar Power System, or SSPS.

The origins of the SSPS concept go back to 1968 and the United States. The first such idea was proposed by the NASA-affiliated scientist and aerospace engineer Dr. Peter Glaser, and during the 1970s some preliminary work was done. However, shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected US President in 1980, NASA’s development of an SSPS was defunded as “a high-risk venture” and an unnecessary government expense.

Later, JAXA picked up the threads and today Japan is the world leader in developing this technology.

Obviously, putting a solar power station up in space is a much more costly proposition than building a more conventional mega-solar plant on the ground, but, as JAXA Associate Senior Engineer Tatsuhito Fujita tells the SNA, there are key advantages as well: “The biggest merit of the SSPS is that in space, as opposed to on land, it can continue to operate even during the nighttime hours. So even when it is dark across the land, it can gather the solar energy and beam it down to earth. Also, solar power on land is at the mercy of weather conditions, like clouds and rain. It can’t produce much energy under bad weather conditions. When the SSPS beams down its energy, cloud cover has no effect, so weather is not a factor. Overall, this means the SSPS can generate a lot more energy. So while it certainly costs more money to send a solar power station into space as opposed to building one on land, once it is up there and producing energy, it is much more efficient, powerful, and stable. That’s its great merit.”

One of the key challenges, of course, is transmitting the solar energy collected in space to businesses and homes down on earth. From the beginning of the SSPS concept, two major possibilities have been explored; the first is through microwaves and the second through lasers. Obviously, these microwaves or beams cannot be so intense as to threaten birds or airplanes that happen to cross their paths, but apparently the technology is already more or less in place that would allow the construction of special energy-collection stations on earth to safely gather the energy sent down from the solar power satellites.

Japan is now moving from the basic study phases of the SSPS to demonstration tests, and in the 2020s, probably in partnership with other countries, is likely to launch a serious effort to build and to put such a system into operation. JAXA’s current goal is to have the first SSPS up and running sometime in the 2030s and generating energy equivalent to about one nuclear power plant.

From that point, if the technology is found to meet the promise that its designers expect of it, not even the sky will be the limit.

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