From: Destiny Allen; Environment, Economics, Development, Sustainability (EEDS), Class of 2015, The Ohio State University
Published January 2, 2014 12:41 PM

COLLEGIATE CORNER: Saving Earth from Space

When we think of the environment, we do not immediately jump to thinking of outer space. The environment usually conjures up images on Earth of breathless beauty, but this does not mean a solution to renewable energy is bound to the limits of our planet.

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The SPS-ALPHA or solar cup for short is a giant satellite shaped like a cup. The purpose of the SPS-ALPHA is to collect solar radiation, concentrate it, and send it down to Earth via radio waves. The radio waves can then be converted into electricity. The solar cup has the potential to power 1/3 of the world’s energy needs due to its vastness and proximity to the sun, though not all at once (Ferreira, 2013).

NASA has contracted a private group headed by John Mankins to work on the blueprints of this innovation. Mankins' report came out in mid-2012 stating the feasibility of this innovation. The report includes the technological makeup of the SPS-ALPHA, the transportation of the satellite, and the possibility of the solar cup becoming privatized.

The solar cup would be made of millions of hexagonal, thin mirrors (Mankins, 2012). The mirrors would be aligned to face a single solar cell on the back of the solar cup. This solar cell would convert the radiation to radio waves and send it to Earth where a receiver would convert the radio waves to electricity (Mankins, 2012). Swarm technology has made this project a possibility; each piece of the solar cup is like an individual ant or bee where all the pieces work together for a common goal (Ferreira, 2013). The pieces know when each other needs to be left alone or repaired.

The drawbacks include mainly the huge costs associated with such a project: the initial costs of building the pieces, the cost of transportation, the cost of maintenance, and the availability of markets. There are criticisms from other scientists saying the radio waves would be too weak and easily scattered (Ferreira, 2013) to get as much power from the SPS-ALPHA as Mankins states is possible.

Some benefits of this innovation include fitting the world with a reliable and green source of energy. The SPS-ALPHA would allow developing nations to do so sustainably. The solar cup would be a reliable source of energy in the face of natural disasters due to it being unaffected by weather. Mankins predicts it could eventually be cheaper than coal and oil (Mankins, 2012). Energy from this innovation can be "exported" to anywhere in the world and it would make the United States an energy independent country.

The SPS-ALPHA will not stop climate change, but it will be a small step for the environment and a huge leap for the people of Earth.  

Solar Cup Image via NASA. 

Destiny Allen is a candidate for Bachelor of Science, class of 2015, with a concentration in Environment, Economics, Development, and Sustainability from the School of Environment and Natural Resources at the Ohio State University.

 

This story is part of the Collegiate Corner, a section of ENN dedicated to student work. All work in this column is the product of the student in its entirely. If you have questions about the Collegiate Corner or would like to submit please contact: rblackstone@enn.com.

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