Beaming microwave energy to Earth from a solar power plant in Space could be a reality soon with space based solar power system. Solar power plants are large structures in space that convert solar energy, captured as solar irradiation, into a form of energy that is transmitted wirelessly to any remote receiver station. Since at least 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy has been exploring the concept of beaming microwaves from space, capable of generating so much power as to be able to power a major U.S. city. In 2019, the Chinese claimed that a fully-functional Chinese microwave beaming power station in space could be deployed by 2050.
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X-37B Secret Space Plane’s Microwave Power Beam Experiment
The X-37B’s upcoming unmanned mission on the 16th of May, 2020, is known as both Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) and as U.S. Space Force-7 (USSF-7).The UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) X-37B will conduct two kinds of experimental missions. Among the two will be a mission to test the system designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that is capable of capturing solar power and beaming that energy back to Earth in the form of microwaves.
This microwave system being tested could have significant military and surveillance-related applications. It could allow near-continuous charging and energy transferring to unmanned flight operations across the world.
The NRL has been helping back up the U.S. Navy’s ambitious projects. In October 2019, the NRL conducted a three-day long demonstration of the Navy’s latest power-beaming capabilities. In the demonstration, the NRL transmitted a completely silent, invisible beam of 2-kilowatt laser power over 300 meters through the air over attendees’ heads. The Navy was first granted a patent in this field in 2016 on the back of the work done by NRL engineer, Dr. Paul Jaffe.
This beamed power system of the U.S. Navy has been endorsed by the IEEE, the Marines, Army, and Air Force and is expected to be endorsed throughout the Department of Defense in the near future.
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Space Based Solar Power System
Remote locations, flight operations and even natural calamity struck geographic areas on Earth, which are short of power and electricity, could be equipped with a rectifying antenna, or a “rectenna.” The rectenna captures energy in the form of microwaves beamed from satellites overhead. Thus, civil disaster relief, civil enforcement operations and various military and naval operations can use this technology for long duration, continuously.
The satellites responsible for generating the beam of energy will be charged by solar energy. Thus, the continuous, powerful, renewable energy of the Sun is deployed.
A group of satellites, much like a constellation of stars, could be required for fast moving UAVs and even for some applications on the Earth’s surface. However, a concrete proof of such a concept is being eagerly anticipated.
Solar Power Based Satellites & Laser Beams
Attempts to remotely power flight operations have been made before.
Czech-U.S. engineer Dr. Peter Glase originated an idea in the 1970s of solar power based satellites (SPS). These would be large structures in space that convert solar energy, captured as solar irradiation, into a form of energy that is transmitted wirelessly to any remote receiver station.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force began testing lasers as a source of propulsion for small “lightcraft” as early as the 1980s. They managed to get small cone-shaped craft to fly hundreds of feet in the air propelled only by laser beams.
In 2011, NASA’s Glenn Research Center published research on laser power-beaming systems, examining long-range optical refuelling of electric platforms such as micro unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAV).
A RAND Corporation study titled “Feasibility of Laser Power Transmission to a High-Altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicle,” also around 2011, approved of the concept of laser-beamed power. It, however, warned that atmospheric interference from clouds could pose limitations on flight paths and ceilings. RAND is a government think tank to offer research and analysis to the U.S. armed forces.
Since at least 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy has been exploring the concept of beaming microwaves from space, capable of generating so much power as to be able to power a major U.S. city.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in July 2018, demonstrated its laser-powered aircraft, the Silent Falcon, which the project lead Joseph A. Abate said was meant to “demonstrate that remote electric refuelling of DoD systems via high energy laser power beaming to extend mission operation time in contested and remote environments.”
In 2019, the Chinese Academy of Space Technology claimed to already be testing such a system and said that a fully-functional Chinese microwave beaming power station in space could be deployed by 2050.
Civilian And Military Applications
This technology has massive implications not only for the future of UAVs, but for all of mankind.
On the civilian front, dependence on cell towers and communications satellites will be reduced and UAVs can be kept in the air for very long periods of time. Our increasingly complex communications networks can operate more reliably in the event of a crisis in a region or even for normal operations.
More importantly, the applications in the military and surveillance areas could be path-breaking. The beam power system could allow satellites to provide reliable power anywhere on the planet or even to spacecraft or other satellites in orbit.
Sustained aerial reconnaissance of conflict ridden zones and disputed areas using drones or UAVs could become a reality. Such were the U-2 spy planes deployed by the U.S. over disputed areas in the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which not only helped U.S. demarcate the disputed areas, but also helped it lay the foundation for electronic surveillance against the Soviet Union from India.
The United States runs a large global surveillance program known as the Five Eyes or Project Echelon. Member countries of this program, including the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the United States, have been systematically wiretapping other governments. Now, their large scale interception operations of international radio, telecommunications and internet traffic will become a lot easier.
International drone-based operations, such as the one used by the U.S. to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, could be solar powered and become much easier to operate. The space based solar power technology combined with NSA’s Skynet program synced with Aadhaar database could be used for real-time assassination in future via “targeted delivery” of Hellfire missile from a Predator drone.
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