Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at Caltech, has spent the past decade exploring an ambitious and futuristic concept: harnessing solar energy in space and beaming it down to Earth. This idea, once relegated to the realms of science fiction, is drawing closer to reality thanks to Hajimiri and his team's groundbreaking research.
Despite initial skepticism, Hajimiri's interest in space-based solar power grew as he realized its potential advantages over terrestrial solar energy.
"On average, you get about eight times more power in space" compared with solar panels on Earth, he explained to CNN.
Addressing common concerns, he assured that the technology would not harm wildlife and is not intended for militarization, humorously dismissing any comparisons to a 'Death Star'
Significant Strides in Space Solar Technology
This year marked a significant milestone for Hajimiri's team with the launch of Maple, a 30-centimeter-long space solar prototype.
Equipped with flexible, lightweight transmitters, Maple's objective was to collect solar energy and transfer it wirelessly within space. The experiment was successful. However, the team's ambitious "stretch goal" was to test if Maple could beam detectable energy back to Earth.
In a "dry run" on the Caltech campus in Pasadena, California, the scientists succeeded in picking up Maple’s signal. Although the amount of energy was minuscule, it demonstrated the feasibility of wirelessly transmitting power from space to Earth.
"It was only after the fact that it dawned on us a little bit that, OK, well, this was something very special," Hajimiri reflected.
The Road Ahead: Challenges and Potential
The concept of space-based solar power is not novel. Isaac Asimov envisioned it in a 1941 science fiction story, and various countries have dabbled in the idea.
However, the economic viability has always been a stumbling block. But now, with the costs of satellite launches decreasing, rapid advancements in solar and robotics technology, and an urgent need for clean energy solutions, the scenario is changing.
Craig Underwood, emeritus professor of spacecraft engineering at the University of Surrey in the UK, sees a convergence of technologies occurring at a crucial time. Yet, realizing this vision would require deploying these technologies on an unprecedented scale.