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NASA funds giant flower-shaped satellite concept, could provide solar energy for Earthlings

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As the world continues to gobble up massive amounts of non-renewable energy at an alarming rate, various companies, institutions, and governing bodies are undertaking a concerted effort to seek alternatives. While many innovative and renewable energy solutions are introduced, however, a great number of ideas fail to evolve from concept to reality. But according to Space.com, one such interesting – and potentially crazy – concept is getting some attention and funding from NASA.

SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array) is a large biomimetic – which refers to human-made devices or systems that imitate nature — flower-shaped solar satellite designed to harness the power of the sun, and beam it back down to Earth. Although it might sound fantastical, even when talking about it as a mere concept, the idea of a space-based solar array actually makes sense for a few reasons – at least in theory.

Unlike solar panels placed here on Earth (or whatever planet you’re reading this from) that are unable to generate power once the sun goes down, a solar panel based in space has the luxury of being exposed to the sun’s rays without interruption. Also, because there is virtually no atmosphere in space there is nothing to impede the sun’s rays from reaching the energy generating panels.

Of course, there are many, many drawbacks to a solar-power satellite concept. One such obvious drawback centers on cost and maintenance of such an array. Shooting anything into space is generally pretty darn expensive.

Another hurdle centers on just how much energy would actually be generated from such an array, not to mention exactly how it would get transported back to the planet. As it stands now, wireless energy transmission hasn’t exactly been perfected and has only recently started to take off commercially. But according to the concept leader, John Mankins of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions, the SPS-ALPHA apparently addresses most of these problems.

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While the installation may resembled a giant flower, thanks to its modular design, it’s actually an array of small (110 to 440 pound) individually controlled thin-film mirrors. These mirrors redirect incoming sunlight toward photovoltaic cells positioned to the backside (the side facing the sun) of the satellites array.

Once collected, the front side of the array (the side facing the earth), which is covered in microwave-power transmitters, gathers energy and beams it down to Earth as low-intensity radio frequency energy. According to Mankins, the possible construction of these large platforms have the potential to deliver tens to thousands of megawatts by utilizing wireless power transmission, which send all that renewable energy back home.

Mankins also points out that the concept could be developed and sent to space relatively cheaply because the individual elements making up the large array can be assembled and produced on a mass production scale. And by keeping the weight of individual panels no more than 110 to 440 pounds — heavier objects are more expensive to blast up into space — cost will be “dramatically lowered.”

Right now, it all sounds pretty far off, and far-fetched. Although, NASA is reportedly impressed enough with the concept to provide some funding for the project, and develop small-scale prototypes as well as initial design work. 

[Image via NASA/John Mankins]