The US Space Force Is Also Catching Space Solar Fever

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The idea of beaming clean energy down to Earth from orbiting arrays of solar panels seemed pretty wacky when it first crossed the CleanTechnica radar. However, the technology building blocks are already at hand. It’s just a matter of scaling, systems integration, and adjustments for space-hardiness. That sounds simple enough, but many hands have been trying to make space solar happen for many years, and now the US Space Force may be helicoptering in to lend a hand.

The Space Solar Race Is For Real

Research teams from the US, China, and the UK are among those chasing the space solar rainbow. The attraction of space solar is the potential for 24/7 solar power at the multi-gigawatt scale, all year long. That has implications for military use as well as civilian life.

The US Department of Defense has already begun using solar arrays and energy storage to build more resilience and security into its facilities and operations. Access to solar energy from space would kick that effort into high gear.

Solar arrays in outer space would also skirt the land use issues that can obstruct Earth-bound solar development, though infrastructure at the receiving end may pose some hurdles depending on the size of the area needed.

Though the space environment poses physical hazards of its own, solar arrays in space would not be subjected to expensive damage from hail, tornadoes, hurricanes, dust, bird droppings, vandalism and other Earthly risks.

ISAM And The “Quantum Antenna”

Space solar would deploy an antenna and a receiver, just like other wireless equipment, only far more expensive. Rocketing gigawatts’ worth of solar panels into space is not cheap.

To help push costs down, the California Institute of Technology has proposed a sandwich-type solar module that integrates solar harvesting along with conversion to a radio frequency into one compact package, accompanied by a built-in antenna. Last month researchers at the school wrapped up a months-long, in-space test of different types of solar cells.

Another approach is illustrated by the Michigan startup Virtus Solis, an industry partner of the University of Bristol. Last June the company and the school received £3.3 million in funding from the UK Net Zero Innovation program, for developing an open-source model for testing the performance of large, centralized antennas in space.

The concept depends upon the use of gigascale antenna arrays capable of delivering over 2GW of power from space onto similar gigascale antenna arrays either at sea or on the ground,” the school explained.

As for how such a thing would be launched into space, that’s where the US Space Force comes in. Last August, the Space Force awarded a small business contract to the US startup Orbital Composites. The company is tasked with the mission of developing its patented “quantum antenna” and in-space fabrication tools for  secure communications in space applications, including space-to-space as well as space-to-Earth and vice versa.

The basic idea is to let 3D printing doing much of the work in space. According to Orbital, in-space fabrication would save more than 100 times the cost of applying conventional fabrication methods to large-scale orbiting antennas.

“By harnessing the potential of In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM), the company eyes the prospect of creating significantly larger space antennas,” Orbital Composites explains. “By fabricating antennas in space, larger and more complex designs are possible that eliminate the constraints of launch and rocket fairings.”

“In line with recent reports, the space antenna market has seen substantial growth, driven by advancements in satellite technologies and deep-space exploration endeavors,” the company adds. “With ISAM, the promise of more affordable and scalable solutions could potentially reshape the trajectory of this market.”

The Space Force didn’t just pull the Orbital name out of a hat. The company also has several other Space Force contracts and partners under its belt including Northrop Grumman, which has worked on space solar projects with CalTech, among other partners.

The Space Solar Pieces Are Falling Into Space

If you’re guessing that a hookup between Virtus and Orbital is in the works, that’s a good guess. On February 1, at the SpaceCOM conference in Orlando, Florida, Virtus Solis let slip that it is working with Orbital Composites on a space solar pilot project.  If all goes according to plan, the project will be up and running in 2027, deploying Virtus’s robot-enabled fabrication system with Orbital’s 3D printing.

As of this writing the two companies have not posted details, but Space News picked up the thread.

“The 2027 mission is designed to showcase critical power-generation technologies including in-space assembly of solar panels and transmission of more than one kilowatt to Earth,” Space News explained. “The news release calls the 2027 mission “a precursor to large-scale commercial megawatt-class solar installations in space by 2030.”

If you can find the link to that news release, or a blog post, or anything on social media drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, Virtus Solis has published a white paper on the topic, in which it explains that space solar applications include “grid- connected customers and point loads such as data centers, green hydrogen generation, desalination, and other high-power customers.”

“As shown, most SBSP [Space Based Solar Power] systems described herein could provide energy at a competitive price in today’s market and future markets. The Virtus Solis architecture excels, with an LCOE of $25/MWh,” they add.

Is The Space Force Really Serious About Space Solar?

To be clear, Orbital’s press release about its new Space Force quantum antenna contract does not mention anything in particular about space solar. However, the pieces of the puzzle fit. Along with the Virtus and Grumman connections, in October of 2022 Orbital won a small business contract through SpaceWERX, the Space Force’s innovative technologies funding arm, to explore the capabilities of ISAM systems.

SpaceWERX comes under the umbrella of the US Air Force’s AFWERX innovation branch, which has developed a program called SSPIDR, short for Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project. Although NASA recently articulated a wait-and-see posture on space solar, the Air Force is already on the move.

“SSPIDR is a series of integrated demonstrations and technology maturation efforts at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate to develop space-based solar power collection and transmission capabilities,” the Air Force Research Laboratory explained in a recap of the program posted in 2023.

“In collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and primary industry partner, Northrop Grumman, AFRL established the SSPIDR project to rapidly infuse space technological innovations in collecting solar energy to provide uninterrupted, assured, and logistically agile power to expeditionary forces,” they added.

Like GPS, Only For Renewable Energy

While Orbital Composites foresees a wide span of use cases for space solar, AFRL is primarily concerned with the impact on military operations. “Ensuring that a forward operating base receives power is one of the most dangerous parts of a ground operation,” AFRL notes.

Instead of exposing fuel convoys to enemy fire, Soldiers could simply set up a solar receiver from the relative safety of their base.

As for non-military applications, AFRL reminds everyone that space solar has the potential to become the GPS of its day. “Much like the Global Positioning System (GPS), which started out as a military asset and transitioned to a technology now used by people everywhere, this solar power beaming system could transition to broader usage,” AFRL emphasizes.

If you’re looking forward to downloading a space solar receiver app onto your smart phone, don’t hold your breath. It’s going to take a while. Nevertheless, computer systems once took up whole rooms to make simple calculations, and look where we are now.

Image: A gigantic antenna is one of the options under consideration for beaming solar energy to Earth from space (screenshot courtesy of Orbital Composites).

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