Japan is One Step Closer to Harvesting Energy From Space

For nearly 15 years, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been working tirelessly to successfully transmit solar power from space. If prosperous, this aggressive plan can significantly lower environmental emissions related to energy use and help to curb climate change.

Japan is One Step Closer to Harvesting Energy From Space

New updates of Japan's orbital solar farm have been released, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) ambitious plans to make space-based solar energy a reality. The organization has recently completed a demonstrative mission on-ground that acts as an integral step along this journey to completion.

Transmitting energy from space may revolutionize how we as a society view and utilize electricity. If we can harvest power from outer space, then the potential outcome could be enough to help lower carbon emissions and slow the rate of global warming.

JAXA is a Japanese-based space agency that has remained a key factor behind various impressive research missions. Since 2008, JAXA has poured a seemingly endless supply of money into its solar energy project.

Known as Space Solar Power Systems (SSPS), JAXA's mission is to transmit microwave energy and convert it into DC electricity. The current plan is to do so by creating a man-made island off the coast of Japan. The island would be home to nearly 5 billion rectifying antennas that can aid in the conversion process.

The island would be relatively small in size - less than 3km- and would also contain a human substation where the electricity would be stored and transferred to Tokyo to be utilized for the city's many shining lights.

Another aspect of the design relies heavily on installing solar power satellites (SPS) into orbit. When taken into consideration, the projection of 1 GW would require an SPS of some 10,000 metric tons. Finding out a way to triumphantly complete this task is no small feat.

A Welcoming Update

Since the project's beginning in 2008, many skeptics have opposed this idea due to environmental risks, costs, and fear of the unknown. That said, the recent accomplishments of the ground demonstration have the potential to lead to a promising future with more support from the general public.

On March 12th, 2021, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (MHI) announced the completion of its pilot test of wireless power transmission. The experiment was conducted utilizing a microwave unit to transmit 10 kW of electricity. Located just 500 meters away from the test site, a power reception confirmed the success of this transmission, further signifying the potential for this research and putting JAXA one step closer to reaching its 2030s goal.

A Long-Time Coming

First proposed in 1968 by Peter Glaser, an American aerospace engineer, the idea to harvest solar energy from space has captured the likes of more than a few scientists who have shown interest in this ambitious goal. In fact, in the late 1970s, NASA worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct studies on the possibility of space-powered energy, though no breakthrough has yet to come from this area.

Wireless power transmission itself is not a new concept, as the infamous Nikola Tesla experimented with the topic as far back as the 1800s. Tesla even made national headlines when, in 1901, he installed a near 200ft tower in Long Island, New York, and attempted to use a laser beam to power moving targets - such as airships.

Though he was eventually defunded, his experiment did yield inspiration as JAXA is looking into a similar concept to transmit their energy.

Space-based solar energy can be generated up to 24 hours a day as opposed to traditional solar energy that has only a limited supply due to solar patterns. This added energy generation could result in providing a substantial amount of power throughout the globe to various areas, even those that might have poor infrastructure.

It is also believed that space has more than 10x as much available solar energy as earth. If the project were to yield success, the amount of energy that could be produced could conceivably mitigate the various environmental impacts resulting from the research.

JAXA's partnership with Honda R&D Co. Ltd. aimed towards exploring circulative renewable energy systems in space can potentially aid in this overall project. The two plan to study an effective way to supply oxygen, hydrogen, and electricity for rovers and outposts in space to be utilized for future space exploration and perhaps the eventual adaptation of space colonization.

That said, there are still many challenges to this concept that still need to be overcome. In addition, we would need to see a sufficiently thorough life-cycle analysis of the entire process to determine its environmental footprint. Though space solar energy would itself have very low emissions, the building of the infrastructure and copious testing sites throughout the entirety of this project is sure to yield some greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

Only time will tell the true outcome of this project -whether it will be worth the time, money, and environmental resources. The successful demonstration is undoubtedly a promising site for the future of space-powered solar energy.


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