Remember four years ago when I wrote a blog about how space-based solar power is a terrible idea and won’t work? No? Here, I’ll just copy my conclusion from that post:
We don’t know how to shine a microwave beam far enough to get it from a satellite to the Earth. Even if we did, it would create a death ray that would fry anything that got in its way. Even if we could protect people from the death ray, the number of solar satellites we’d need to replace Japan’s nuclear power plants is so prohibitively large that it would take us centuries to implement. This cannot be done on a scale that makes it useful for generating power for whole countries. It is simply not possible. Sorry.
Now, Engadget is reporting that China wants to do exactly what I was talking about in that post, which will still not be possible for the same reasons and because of science.
“Humanity uses a lot of energy, and while solar power here on Earth is doing a reasonable job of contributing to the electricity mix, scientists have long hypothesized that gathering the sun’s energy from space would be a lot more effective.”
The funny thing is that this paragraph links to an Engadget article from 2009 about a company named Solaren Corp, which was supposed to be supplying 200 megawatts of electricity to California starting in 2016, which, SURPRISE, never happened because this is impossible. Solaren Corp still has a website, which they haven’t updated in years, so don’t hold your breath. Engadget has not noticed the irony.
“And now China says it’s going to be the first to do exactly that, announcing plans to build an interstellar power station that will orbit the Earth at 36,000 kilometers.”
36,000 kilometers is roughly 22,000 miles, which is geosynchronous orbit. Which I already talked about in my last post. Just so we’re all clear that this is the same idea that still won’t work.
“China’s proposal suggests converting solar energy into electricity in space, before beaming back to Earth using a microwave or laser and feeding into the grid via a ground receiving system.”
Yup. Same thing.
“There are, of course, numerous challenges associated with this sci-fi-sounding plan.”
OH ARE THERE?
“Such a power station would weigh a considerable amount — around 1,000 tons — so getting the gear into orbit will be difficult.”
“Difficult” doesn’t begin to describe it. According to this article, China is developing a super-heavy-lift rocket called a Long March 9, which can carry “140 metric tons to low Earth orbit, 50 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit, and 44 tons to Earth-Mars transfer orbit.” Geosynchronous orbit is somewhere between LEO and EMTO, so let’s just call it an even 100 tons because it makes the math easier. That’s still 10 launches, not to mention whatever extra effort it will take to put it all together.
“Researchers are therefore considering whether the station could be constructed in space using robots and 3D printing.”
3D PRINTING FROM WHAT?! You still need raw materials to 3D print out of. You can’t just put a robot in space and ask it to create complex electronic circuitry out of the infinite vacuum plus whatever space junk it comes across.
It doesn’t matter how you build it, honestly. There’s nothing up there. That means that if the final station is going to weigh 1000 tons, you have to put every one of those thousand tons into space in the first place — plus, most likely, a shitload of extra materials to do the construction.
“The effects of microwave radiation on the atmosphere will also need to be studied.”
No they won’t, because I already ran the numbers for you, remember? Remember what I said? Here’s what I said:
“Let’s imagine you fell over the fence on to the array. You would die. You would probably catch fire. Imagine putting a piece of steak in the microwave for half an hour, and that’s what would happen to you in five seconds. Your whole body and clothes would burn away and you would be left as a pile of ash on someone’s fancy rectenna array. It’ll kill birds, too. A bird flying 30 mph will take about six seconds to cross a beam that wide, so it’ll be burnt to a cinder long before it gets through.”
“But it’s clearly not beyond the realms of possibility.”
YES IT FUCKING IS.
“Japan has been talking about this for a decade, while space programs are constantly growing their understanding of the technology needed to effectively beam power back to Earth.”
This part links back to the article that inspired my post four years ago in the first place, so that’s not reassuring.
“China has really ramped up its space program in recent times, reaching the far side of the moon and growing the first plants on the lunar surface.”
Those are very different things. Getting to the far side of the moon is not that much harder than getting to the near side, since we’ve put a bazillion things in orbit around the moon already — it’s just a matter of when you turn on the afterburners.
And the plant thing is also only mildly impressive. Essentially, the lander contained a sealed container full of dirt, seeds, and water. The container had to be kept at a stable temperature long enough for the seeds to sprout, at which point they immediately died. Forgive me if I think the word “growing” might be a little generous here.
“Its timescales for this plan may be ambitious, but its quest to become a space superpower suggests this common science fiction dream is closer than ever to becoming a reality.”
NO IT DOESN’T. Being ambitious doesn’t make you good at things — ask the unfathomable number of people who have put their efforts into cold fusion or perpetual motion machines. Just because China wants to be a superpower doesn’t mean it can overcome very basic laws of physics.
I have a theory about stuff like this. I don’t blame the people at Engadget — they’re just reporting on China’s story, not editorializing. Presumably all the people involved with this research are very smart scientists and engineers — so how do they miss these things?
It’s possible that there’s some major mistake in calculations that I’m making, but I doubt it. The numbers aren’t complicated. No, I think the problem is that these people are too specialized. The more you progress in almost any field, but especially science, the more specialized you get.
I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who studies the Sun — more specifically, he studies the light given off by a particular part of the Sun, in a particular wavelength. He is one of a very small number of people who studies and knows anything about that specific area.
But he knows less about the other planets in our solar system than your average overenthusiastic ten-year-old. Why? Because he hasn’t studied anything to do with a celestial body other than the Sun in twenty years.
So when these scientists say they’re working on projects like this, my theory is that they’re working on some incredibly arcane detail, like how exactly to convert photovoltaic energy to microwaves, and none of them has taken a wide-angle view of the problem to do the math on whether you can even shine a beam of microwaves that far (no).
In 2016, I wrote about how Solar Roadways are a dumb idea, and I was right.
In 2014, I wrote about a magical water heater that wouldn’t work, at least not the way they said it would. According to my math, the water heater (which used up to 4.95 kW of power) would heat water by about 15 degrees Fahrenheit at 2.5 gallons per minute, which is not enough to be useful.
That company is still in business, now selling the third iteration of the one that I wrote about, which uses a ludicrous 24 kW of power — a four-burner stove with oven maxes out at 12.2 kW. And even with all that power, they advertise a heating capability of 82 degrees Fahrenheit at 2 gallons per minute, which is just barely enough to run a shower and uses five times as much energy to heat water four times as quickly.
Or, to put it more succinctly, I WAS FUCKING RIGHT.
I’ll check in with you guys in 2025, at which point China will not have put a solar power array in space, because I am right.