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An artist rendering of the potential orbiting solar plant. It would beam power to a massive lake-sized collector for optimal efficiency.   (Source: Kris Holland/Mafic Studios)

John C. Mankins, since leaving NASA, has spoken about his dream of space power both at various high profile news conferences. Now he has his biggest audience yet, with a historic proof-of-concept test airing on the Discovery channel.  (Source: Space Power Association)
New advances in power transmission would make Tesla proud

After decades of dormancy, interest in transmitting power wirelessly is finally heating up in the tech community.  Intel recently demoed its new wireless charging tech which it says could power its next generation chipsets.  Now, a former NASA researcher is revealing even grander plans to transform the business of power generation as we know it.

Funded by the Discovery Channel, John C. Mankins finished a four month experiment which began by collecting solar power, nothing out of the ordinary.  What happened next was relatively extraordinary, though -- he transmitted the power 92 miles (148 km) between two Hawaiian Islands. 

Terrestrial power transmission is only of interest to Mr. Mankins as a proof of concept.  Mr. Mankins' true plans are out of this world.  He envisions a network of 1,102 lb. (500 kg) satellites beaming solar power collected from panels back to Earth, satisfying all the world's power needs.

After working loyally for NASA for 25 years, he resigned after the solar program at the agency was terminated.  Now he's completed one of the more ambitious transmission experiments in history -- enough to make Nikola Tesla, the man who first envisioned wireless power transmission, proud.

The work still has a long way to go, though.  The transmission only successfully received one one-thousandth of the total power sent, a very low efficiency.  This was primarily because the receivers were so tiny.  Larger receivers, would still be rather inefficient, but could in theory, achieve much higher efficiencies.  Furthermore, the costs were relatively high at $1M USD, but Mr. Mankins believes the costs would decrease as the technology was scaled up.

In total each of the nine solar panels in the transmission assembly sent 2 watts of power.  They were originally equipped to send 20 watts, but the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would only approve the lower power transmissions.

The encouraging results have reaffirmed Mr. Mankins' commitment to one day bring space-based solar power to the world.  His vision is that one day a fleet of satellites will beam power down to lake-sized receivers.  He enthuses, "The test was in no way fully successful, (but) I think it showed it is possible to transmit solar power quickly and affordably."

Mr. Mankins is president of ARTEMIS Innovation Management Solutions LLC, a startup which provides "strategic planning, technology assessment, and R&D management objectives" to government agencies.  He is also president of the Space Power Association.

The U.S. military is investigating similar plans to use satellite based solar power to beam power to troops on the battlefield.

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RE: efficiency
By Solandri on 9/15/2008 1:10:31 PM , Rating: 2
Well solar panels in space have much higher power yield than on earth surface though, because of lack of absorption of earth's atmosphere. Yes the panels are still in the same efficiency rating but the incident radiation is higher.

Isn't it only 2x higher? Like 1500 W/m^2 in space vs. 750 W/m^2 on earth?

Bear in mind that getting stuff to low earth orbit costs over $1000/kg, even more for geosynchronous (and those slots are coveted for communications). Solar already has problems due to its massive up-front costs. A space-based solar array just seems to be exacerbating its negatives.

RE: efficiency
By AnnihilatorX on 9/15/2008 2:19:10 PM , Rating: 2
I think there is another factor as well. Something to do with the light spectrum (frequency band of absorption of light in atmosphere) as well. I may be wrong here.

RE: efficiency
By menace on 9/15/2008 4:01:34 PM , Rating: 2
It's only 2x like higher but also you only get effectively 20-50% of the time with good direct sunlight (depending on location, climate, and time of the year). The satellite of course would be capable of beaming down energy almost continuously (with rare blackouts in the earth's umbra) while ground based solar is intermittent and would require energy storage. A satellite system would not need storage but on the minus side it would be very expensive to lift all those satellites into orbit. I think you might need to have at least 20% transmission efficiency just to break even with ground based solar.

RE: efficiency
By masher2 on 9/15/2008 4:37:06 PM , Rating: 2
There's a few other factors besides eliminating atmospheric absorption and clouds. In the right location, you can eliminate the day/night cycle entirely, obviating the need for energy storage. You can also direct the beam, meaning you can easily power areas in Nothern latitudes, without needing thousands of miles of lossy electrical cables.

Furthermore, there's no weather in space, so your panels stay clean and don't take wind and hail damage, and there's no gravity, so you can build massive concentrator systems cheaply, since they don't need to support their own weight.

On the downside, you have the enormous cost of lifting anything into space, plus the exhorbitant cost of servicing the system, should anything ever go wrong with it.

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