Japan might kick off the next space race within the next decade by constructing a solar power plant in orbit.
As reported by Vice, the idea for space-based solar power generation first emerged in 1968. And over the last four decades, technological advances, such as assembly robots, lightweight and efficient materials, and more affordable payload launches, has enabled the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to hatch a plan that involves sticking a several-miles long, 10,000 metric ton, solar panel-covered power plant in space (about 24,000 miles above the Earth).
The solar station will feature six-mile-long tethering cables that connect to a ground base station, in order to offset the gravitational pull and keep it at a fixed point in geostationary orbit. The multibillion-dollar project also includes free-floating reflection mirrors that'll keep sunlight pouring onto the solar panels even when the Earth's rotation spins the station away from the sun, according to Susumu Sasaki, a professor at JAXA, in an IEEE editorial.
The station will of course need to beam all that energy to a small target on Earth via wireless power transmission, as explained by Yasuyuki Fukumuro, a research and planning scientist of Space Solar Power Systems at JAXA. The solar energy will first be converted into microwaves capable of traveling long distances while avoiding weather and debris obstacles, and then the antenna-covered target site on Earth will turn those waves into usable electricity.
The solar station is expected to generate 1 GW of power, similar to existing nuclear power plants. The key difference is that the solar station will last indefinitely and is 10 times more efficient than other power sources available. Although the project is now underway, JAXA doesn't expect practical use of the station until the 2030s: "We have just moved from the study phase to the technology demonstration phase," Fukumuro said on JAXA's site.
JAXA's 25-year plan includes demonstrations on the ground in 2014, followed by satellite experiments in 2017. The development phase will begin in 2021 and conclude in 2030 with power station demonstrations. You can expect a full-scale 1-gigawatt power station to be in full swing by 2031.
Author Thomas Frey has suggested, in a blog post on the World Future Society, that Japan's solar station project should strong-arm other countries like the US and Russia to compete in a "entirely new kind of space race".