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Could the Air Force's solar beaming project deliver direct power to Earth?

By Jeff Spry

Let the sun shine in! A promising new U.S. Air Force project scheduled to launch in 2024 hopes to beam solar power directly to Earth from orbit, possibly providing space-based power for an energy-hungry planet.

Currently, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is moving forward with an experimental project known as  SSPIDR ("Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research"), an endeavor that advance technology required to reap solar energy from the Sun and deliver it down to Earth. These small-scale missions aim to contribute to a wider knowledge base that will be effective in eventually creating a prototype solar power distribution system. 

"Ensuring that a forward operating base maintains reliable power is one of the most dangerous parts of military ground operations. Convoys and supply lines are a major target for adversaries," explains the narrator of AFRL's official new video, regarding the technology's obvious battlefield advantages. 

"Ground-based solar, while seemingly an attractive solution, is limited by area, the size of collectors required and climate," the narrator notes. "But if the solar panels were in orbit, they could have unfettered access to the sun's rays, providing an uninterrupted supply of energy."

According to their press release, AFRL's process includes sunlight-harvesting satellites engineered with special photo-voltaic cells that will convert solar energy into radio frequency (RF) power and shoot it back to Earth, where receiving antennas transform that RF juice into an abundance of clean power.


The project won't actually build this future operational system, but its program is targeted towards clearing a path toward that end game with its upcoming schedule of ground and flight experiments. 

One such SSPIDR test launching into Earth orbit is 2024 is ARACHNE, which will analyze power conversion and space-beaming by employing sandwich tiles crafted by project partner Northrop Grumman. 

Two other experiments, SPINDLE and SPIRRAL, are devised to demonstrate the orbital deployment of a stripped-down version of a power-beaming satellite and reveal alternative methods to keep satellite temperatures in a reasonable range.

SPINDLE is slated to launch in 2023 on Alpha Space's Materials International Space Station Experiment Flight Facility.

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