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How China is harnessing the sun and making space useful

By Barry He | | Updated: 2019-03-04 03:08
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Computer simulation graphic of a proposed space-based solar power station. [PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY]

The exploration of space is fraught with difficulties. Aside from the obvious giant technical hurdles, such expeditions can be the target of social criticism too. When NASA landed the first people on the moon in 1969, political activists came out in their thousands to point out that huge racial and economic issues were playing out in the United States at the same time. They argued that the billions of dollars spent and the brain power expended could have been better spent on reducing human suffering on our own doorstep.

The link, however, between space travel research and technology is a little more subtle. Many people are completely unaware of just how much our society benefits from technologies originally derived from space exploration. Chances are that your phone is equipped with an in-built camera. The first of these small, inbuilt cameras were developed by spacecraft companies in the 1990s. No spacecraft, no WeChat photos. If you ever have had a close family relative diagnosed with cancer, the CAT scanners in hospitals that are used to locate tumors were also originally developed by space physicists. In fact, many things we use in day-to-day life, including LED lights, the computer mouse, and even modern-day sneakers and trainers, owe something to space travel.

So far, these contributions are not directly associated with space research in the public eye, however, this may be about to change. China has started to build the first solar power station in space, which, importantly, will be capable of sending energy back to Earth. According to the announcement made by the Ministry of Science and Technology, construction of an initial experimental solar facility in Chongqing has already started.

The long-term goal, for 2030, is something straight out of a science-fiction script. The plan is to have an orbiting solar facility by then that will generate 1 megawatt of power. To put this into perspective, a coal station is typically 6 MW in size. The plan is to follow this by even larger generators in the future, as technology improves.

But why have a solar power facility in space? The economics may at first seem counterintuitive, given the huge fuel costs among everything else. However, around 55 percent of solar energy is lost to the Earth’s atmosphere, before it can even reach the ground. By being in outer space, energy efficiency will be greatly improved, and also not be subject to the mercy of night, or clouds. The plan then is to beam the energy back to Earth via some kind of wireless method, however, this has yet to be confirmed.

The potential payoff will be huge for the Earth. Solar power is one of the most efficient methods of obtaining renewable energy sources, and power generated from outer space will, for sure, also hold applications for powering spacecraft and operations in space as well as back on Earth. Given China’s recent unprecedented landings on the far side of the moon, such technology may become invaluable for future exploration, for the whole world.

Back on Earth, the scramble to combat climate change concerns, and research new methods of energy and energy storage is ongoing. The international climate change panel IPCC reported in October that climate change is more rapid than expected and that global temperature could increase by 2.7 degrees in the next 11 years, thus exacerbating the increasingly unpredictable weather systems seen in the last decade. Space may once have been seen as an unnecessary and expensive endeavor, but the potential to provide a clean, efficient, and renewable energy resource could be the ultimate utility from our final frontier.

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