In late November, a top-level meeting of European science ministers will convene in Paris. Their job is to decide the next priorities for the European Space Agency (Esa), of which the UK is still a member, and one of the items on their list to consider is a proposal for testing the feasibility of building commercial power stations in orbit. These huge satellites would bask in the sunlight, converting it to power and beaming it down to Earth to be fed into the power grid. The proposed project, known as Solaris, would determine whether the idea can contribute to Europe’s future energy security – or if it is all still pie in the sky.
If the study gets the go-ahead, it will be like coming home for the space industry, which has always been at the forefront of solar power development. A year after the Russians launched the battery-powered Sputnik 1 in 1957, the Americans launched Vanguard 1. This was the fourth satellite in orbit and the first to generate its power using solar energy. Since that time, solar panels have become the primary way of powering spacecraft, which has helped to drive research. Vanguard 1’s solar cells converted just 9% of the captured sunlight into electricity. Today, the efficiency has more than doubled, and continues to increase, while the cost of fabrication has been falling. It’s a winning formula.