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Startup plans to revolutionize clean energy industry with space-based solar power: 'Can be twice as efficient or more'

If the system is ultimately successful, this could be an enticing clean energy solution.

If the system is ultimately successful, this could be an enticing clean-energy solution.

Photo Credit: Virtus Solis

Virtus Solis believes that getting closer to the source could unlock a new era of reliable low-cost solar power for everyone around the globe. 

This Michigan-based startup isn't planning a new Earth-bound tower, though. Instead, it hopes to build the first-ever solar farm in space. According to Interesting Engineering, the idea of Virtus Solis was presented in April at the International Conference on Energy from Space in London. 

John Bucknell, a former SpaceX rocket engineer who founded Virtus Solis in 2019, suggested using SpaceX's Starship to position a massive solar array in the Molniya orbit. The startup says this orbit would keep "one or more arrays in line of sight of ground stations 100% of the time."   

In theory, after the spaceship sends hundreds of satellites to space in a single journey, in-orbit robots would then help assemble the system, which would convert sunlight into electricity and use a microwave receiver to beam focused energy to select stations equipped with rectennas.

"A rectenna … it's like an antenna with another circuit added to it that can convert RF into something usable. In fact, the receivers that we've got can be twice as efficient or more than a typical solar plant on the ground," Dr. Edward Tate told Interesting Engineering's Lexicon podcast.

Virtus Solis says on its website that "each 1.65-meter satellite delivers 1 kilowatt (kW) of power to ground," with its power beam able to "instantaneously" deliver energy to 50% of the Earth's surface at a given time. According to NASA satellites in the "highly eccentric" Molniya orbit take roughly 12 hours to complete a cycle. 

If the system is ultimately successful, this could be an enticing clean energy solution. On its website, the company explains why it decided a solar farm in space was the best option. 

In part, it points to the harmful nature of dirty fuels, which release heat-trapping gases and toxic particles when burned. This pollution has led to an increase in crop-destroying weather events and been linked to severe health issues, including some cancers

Meanwhile, on-planet solar farms are unable to harvest energy from the sun around the clock, meaning that battery storage is essential for a grid to provide consistent power. 

Virtus Solis believes its technology is scalable, able to integrate with our current solar farms, and will address the challenge of providing reliable solar energy in regions that have long winters with limited daylight. 

The startup surely has many years — if not decades — of research on the horizon before its system could be ready for safe and meaningful use. Interesting Engineering reported that the startup won't launch its first testing satellite until 2027. 

However, researchers have been steadily working on Earth-bound solar solutions. These appear to be much more feasible options to ensure our planet has reliable, non-polluting energy at a low cost. 

For example, existing solar systems already save homeowners around $1,500 on their electric bills every year, and they can keep the lights on during climate-caused power outages. 

And while battery storage is traditionally expensive, as Virtus Solis notes, a number of companies have had success using cheap, abundant materials, like crushed rocks or pebbles, to ensure excess renewable power is available for future use. Early modeling for a twin tower project in Saudi Arabia has also shown promise for 24/7 clean energy generation.

In the meantime, science fiction lovers will surely be keeping their eyes on Virtus Solis' proposal. 

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