The extraordinary Airbus project, which is preparing to design a solar farm in space

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Airbus, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is piloting this colossal project to create an orbiting solar farm capable of supplying energy to a nuclear power plant. Jean-Dominique Coste, lead engineer at Airbus Blue Sky, a department responsible for exploring future technologies with high strategic potential for space travel, traces the genesis of the “Solar Power Beams” project.

Captures the sun’s energy from space to send it back in the form of microwaves and convert it into electricity on Earth. It is the pharaonic project, but not impossible to implement in the state, launched by Airbus, which within twenty years is thinking of being able to send a solar farm into orbit (36,000 km above the planet), a bouquet of 2 km2 solar plants. panels capable of unfolding in space, assisted by robots for maintenance.

Powering entire cities, industry, even airplanes. Not a utopia from Jules Verne’s imagination, rather a serious desire on the part of the European aircraft manufacturer to invest in ecological conversion in cooperation with the European Space Agency (Esa). And reduce the consumer’s energy bill.

The origin of solar rays

“At Airbus, we are interested in the ability to transfer energy over long distances, through air and space. There are many such applications, but one in particular will ultimately provide 24-hour green energy. Unlike all renewable energy today, which is intermittent, depending on the weather cycle, day and night, etc. It is a concept that has been around since the 1970s, tested notably by NASA, the US Department of Defense, the Chinese. This concept had not succeeded because the development and implementation costs were enormous. It was related to the number of throwers. Now the dynamic has changed tremendously, costs have come down with reusable launchers. The topic is coming back into fashion.

Energetic transition

“The production of energy in space is coming back into vogue. There is the climate crisis, the urgency of independent access to energy. With Space X [créé par le milliardaire Elon Musk, NDLR], the cost of launch vehicles is at an all time low and with the advances made in manufacturing structures in space. On antennas, energy conversion systems. Everything becomes less crazy and much more realistic”.

A future project for Airbus

“It is a very interesting vision developed at Airbus. But before getting there, a commercial and industrial path must be found. There will be feedback to be given before this grand vision is achieved. We are studying the transfer of energy by radiation to power aircraft, to create an energy network in the air. From the ground or space, we can thus increase the range of an aircraft, reduce the weight of the batteries, we work together with the major energy players to possibly move this energy network in space, rather than having electric cables, pipelines, etc. The idea would be to send the sun’s rays to drones, planes, where they are needed.

Energy at your fingertips in the room

“It could sell power to satellites because satellite solar panels are a big move. This requires very expensive testing, it’s very fragile to implement. Just providing power from space is great. In the long term, to be able to provide space -to-earth energy, to produce gigawatts as nuclear power plants.

The construction of a solar farm

“The designs are not yet fixed, but we are looking for flexible structures that can be easily implemented. The best-known structure, the International Space Station (ISS), is made of solid modules. The main elements are the solar panels and the antenna, which transmits the energy with rays. We also imagine doing 3D printing in space with large printers. A kind of arm that, by turning, would imprint the antenna. It’s not science fiction, but many things are being studied today. »

Airbus and the European Space Agency at the forefront of the field

The European Space Agency, partner in the Airbus Solar Power Beam project, will propose during a ministerial conference in November “a development program for solar farms in space”, explains Jean-Dominique Coste.

“We are helping them develop this program industrially at Airbus,” he continues. Other manufacturers are also involved, but not at the same level. Thalès proposes assembly-level things in space, OHB (German) funded a study. Frankly, Airbus is the most advanced today. We have a general vision: it is useful for space, for aircraft and for the planet”.

What are the dangers of radiation that would cross the atmosphere to reach the earth, the environment? “In our demonstration, we had zero percent absorption. On a space-based, geostationary system, we know we have 2% absorption. Several parameters must be taken into account: what power is required on the ground, what is the wavelength used, the surface area of ​​the antenna, at gambling on all this, we can get a more or less dangerous system. »

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