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European space company EADS Astrium has revived an old idea, that of space-based solar power generation. The company says it could have a 10-20kW demonstration spacecraft in orbit "in the next five years".

The BBC reports on speculation by company executives yesterday, but it is acknowledged that without funding, probably from government, nothing much will happen. However, Astrium argues that the European Space Agency or the EU* might invest, or even power companies.

The idea of space-based solar power schemes is to use solar arrays in orbit to generate power and then beam that power wirelessly down to Earth. Photovoltaic panels perform hugely better in space than they do on Earth, freed from the attenuating effects of the atmosphere. It's also easier to keep them facing the sun directly.

The tricky bit is the power-beaming technology. Previously many plans had seen the energy being sent down in the form of microwaves, but results in the event of a beam wandering off the receiving station could be a bit messy - indistinguishable from orbital raygun bombardment.

Astrium believes that the way ahead is the use of infrared lasers, which wouldn't be so prone to fry cities in the event of a mishap.

"Conversion of this infrared energy into electricity - that's something which is progressing very fast and we are working with the University of Surrey to develop converters," company CTO Robert Laine told the Beeb.

"The principle is to get a very high efficiency of conversion... If we achieve 80 per cent then it's a real winner."

Space-based solar power is a potentially unlimited resource, and would avoid most of the downsides of today's power-generation methods. It requires no limited supplies of fossil fuel, isn't erratic or unreliable, and requires no exploitation of other nations' resources.

However, like nuclear power, it does have implicit potential as a weapon. A technofear protest movement might appear if space solar ever became serious. Then there's the matter of expense, orbital lift capability etc. A study for the US military in 2007 concluded that present-day launch technology with throwaway boosters "will not support the business case for space-based solar power".

Space solar power would be a bonanza for companies like EADS Astrium, of course. But just because they'd like to see it happen doesn't mean that it will. ®

*The ESA, despite its name, is not an EU bureau.

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