The concept of space based solar power has been around for decades. The late Gerard K. O’Neill proposed building them as a way to finance Space colonies in the 1970s. Recently Popular Science reported on a modern approach to building space based solar energy stations. Instead of relying on massive, orbiting space colonies filled with construction workers to put the plants together, why not automate the entire process?

The idea is that we send a number of specialized robots to the lunar surface. The first task the robots perform would be to put together an infrastructure for a solar power station factory, including an electromagnetic mass driver to launch parts to geosynchronous orbit to be assembled.

Then, some robots start to mine lunar resources, including silicon, aluminum, iron, and titanium. The material is then fed into 3D printers to create easy to assemble parts of the solar energy stations.

Then the electromagnetic mass driver launches the parts to the assembly point in geosynchronous orbit where other robots assemble them into space based solar power stations. After an initial investment creating the infrastructure, the process is cheap and automatic, much more so than launching everything from Earth.

Space based solar power works by collecting sunlight where it is shining almost continuously unfiltered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

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The solar energy station transmits the power to a receiving station on the Earth’s surface via microwaves. The process does not involve polluting fossil fuels or fissionable materials. The energy is clean, renewable, and theoretically limitless.

Economics rather than technology may be the biggest challenge to solar energy from space. The fracking boom has made natural gas abundant and as cheap as it has ever been.

The efficiency of ground-based solar has been going up while its cost has been going down. A number of organizations are working on fusion power, some concepts ironically fueled by helium 3 mined from the moon.

However, in an energy economy that involves several, competing sources of energy, solar energy from space may make some sense to try out. One reason for a return to the moon might consist of setting up a prototype operation to see if a solar power plant factory on the moon would be practical.

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