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AFRL looks to beam solar energy from space

AFRL and Northrop Grumman are partnering to develop a system that would collect solar energy in space, convert it to radio frequency, and beam it to earth to be used during military operations. (Air Force Research Laboratory Illustration)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The concept of collecting solar energy through satellites and beaming the power to earth has been around since the 1960s.

But the technology hasn’t been around to do it cost effectively. But that may no longer be the case.

The Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque is helping to develop a system that would collect solar energy in space, convert it to radio frequency, and beam it to earth to be used in remote, forward operational bases during military operations.

AFRL is partnering with Northrop Grumman on the more than $100 million Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstration and Research project, also known as SSPIDR to develop the technology.

“Energy is a strategic enabler and potential vulnerability for our nation and our Department of Defense,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. “To ensure DOD mission success we must have the energy we need at the right place at the right time.”

Maj. Tim Allen said the project was “born out of an operational need to provide power to disadvantaged users” such as forward operational bases that rely on fuel convoy deliveries for power. He said the ability to send power from space provides “more safety to our troops so they don’t have to escort those convoys.”

Developers envision a system that is a constellation of satellites with solar panels, about 10,000-square meters, or about the size of a football field or tennis court, Allen and systems engineer Rachel Delaney said.

“This whole project is building toward wireless power transmission,” said Allen, who is the demonstrations manager on the project.

He said the solar panels that would be sent into space would “beam power down when and where we choose.”

“The beams are electronically steered so we can put them down in specific locations and keep them steered there without having to turn some large array,” Allen said.

Delaney said AFRL would not be making the final prototype.

“We’re developing different demonstrations that would develop the technology needed for that large scale prototype,” she said.

Delaney said developing the system faces thermal challenges “and how you support something that big in orbit.”

“Those are areas we’re trying to improve.” Allen said.

Although the project seeks to help military operations, Allen and Delaney believe such a system could be useful non-militarily to remote communities worldwide.

“This technology was first looked at in the 1960s or so, and it wasn’t cost effective then,” Allen said. “Now we’re going down the route to building some experiments to find out if it is cost-effective. If we find that it is and we start producing this operational capability, I believe the commercial industry will be happy to mimic what we’re doing and start providing this power commercially and not just for the military.”

“If you have a spacecraft collecting solar energy beaming it, this spacecraft has nearly constant sunlight and it is able to collect up to eight times more than a ground system would,” Delaney said. She said such a system “would provide solar power through weather, regardless of latitude, and regardless of the time of day as well. New Mexico gets a lot of sun, but there are other places around the world that don’t normally. So we would be able to provide power solar power to them.”

Allen said the capability would provide power at night.

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