PARIS — After several months of in-house review and a small ground demonstration, Astrium on Jan. 19 announced it would canvass European governments for support to build a satellite to gather solar energy to be delivered to Earth via infrared laser beam.
Astrium officials said they are not about to undertake the project — which likely would feature a large satellite in geostationary orbit to prove the concept — without partners. But they said their own studies of the idea show promise for providing ships at sea or other fixed or mobile users a continuous power source from space.
Astrium Chief Technical Officer Robert Laine said recent advances in photoelectric-cell efficiency and in laser technology in Europe, combined with Astrium’s demonstrated capability in building satellite-hosted mirrors, have brought the idea much closer to reality.
“Institutions in many nations, including the United States and Russia, have looked at ideas like this for a long time,” Laine said during a press briefing here Jan. 19. “On the energy reception side, we have been working with the University of Surrey on converters that would transform the laser signal into energy.”
Astrium, a subsidiary of Europe’s EADS aerospace giant, in 2009 purchased Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which is affiliated with the University of Surrey.
Laine said the AlphaSat satellite platform now in development by a European consortium including Astrium would be suitable for a laser-delivered power demonstration. The AlphaSat platform is being financed by the French and European space agencies and is designed to provide up to some 20 kilowatts of power.
Laine said Astrium has steered clear of space-based power-delivery designs using microwave signals because of public concerns about health effects.
An infrared signal, he said, could provide 1 to 2 kilowatts per square meter of power and still be well within safety limits. “People could walk through a beam with that power, and birds could fly through it, without a problem,” Laine said. He said solar cells with 80 percent efficiency are being developed and that no substantial technical hurdles remain to develop such a spacecraft and its associated ground segment.
Laine said Astrium held a competition in-house for ideas related to climate change, and the infrared laser proposal was selected. A book-size demonstrator vehicle was developed, and a laser trained on it to prove the general idea that a simple tracking antenna could maintain the power link continuously.
Astrium Chief Executive Francois Auque said the company would be presenting the idea to different government bodies in Europe, and that further development by the company would await financial partnerships.
Astrium in mid-2007 disclosed that it was designing a space plane to carry fee-paying passengers to the edge of the atmosphere to experience brief periods of weightlessness and to see the curvature of the Earth.
Auque said he remains convinced that the plane one day will be developed, but the project has been shelved for now because prospective investors in the Middle East have encountered financial difficulties. He said there has been recent interest in the project from another region of the world, but he declined to be more specific.
“We’re a serious company and you notice we have never sold tickets” to space-plane passengers, Auque said in an apparent jab at Virgin Galactic of Britain, which has sold several hundred tickets — at $200,000 a piece, with deposits of $20,000 — for flights aboard a suborbital vehicle scheduled to be operational in 2012. “But I am absolutely convinced that [the Astrium space plane] will be developed one day.”