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China is putting a floating power station in space

·2-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

China has accelerated the launch of a solar power plant that will orbit the Earth.

The superpower has scheduled the craft for 2028, when a trial satellite orbiting our planet at 400km will test the concept.

It is planned that the satellite will convert solar energy into microwaves or lasers before beaming that power to fixed locations on Earth.

While the initial test will only reach 10 kilowatts of power - enough to meet the energy needs of a handful of homes - the technology could apparently be increased significantly. The first craft will be assembled on Earth before being sent into space, but future iterations will be assembled completely outside of the atmosphere.

Should the test be successful, it could be “an effective contributor to reaching carbon peak and neutrality goals”, Professor Dong Shiwei of the National Key Laboratory of Science and Technology on Space Microwave under the China Academy of Space Technology, said.

By 2035, it is expected that a full-scaled solar cell array, with high power transmission, will be completed - capable of beaming power over a 36,000km distance. A more complex solar cell array, with a voltage of between 10 and 20 kilovolts and two-gigawatts of power, will be assembled by 2050 should production go as planned.

This is approximately the same as a nuclear power plant on Earth, with the hopes that commercial assembly costs will have been reduced over time.

However, Professor Dong said that the technological challenges of such a craft would be unprecedented. It would require an antenna hundreds or thousands of metres long that could resist movement from solar winds, gravity, and thrusters.

Moreover, keeping components cool, penetrating the atmosphere in all weathers, and protecting it from space debris - which is only becoming more of a concern due to the increase of commercial space launches and a lacklustre effort from global governments to limit the detritus clogging the space around the planet - create further challenges.

One Beijing-based researcher, quoted by the South China Morning Post which reported on the announcement, said that while solar farms in space could generate power much more efficiently than on Earth, “such huge infrastructure in space could make many countries uncomfortable, especially those without the technology or capacity to build one”.

High-power lasers could also be used to jam communications or damage hardware if used as an energy weapon - something that has been proposed by defense scientists. As well as China the British government, in collaboration with European defense contractors, and the United States military has considered similar proposals for solar power plants.

It is possible that these endeavors could launch in 2035 and 2025, respectively - raising concerns about the lack of international legislation protecting countries from the risks of this energy arms race.

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