On 3 January, the California Institute of Technology’s Space Solar Power Project (SSPP) launched a prototype into orbit to test several key components of a space-based solar power station.

Space-based solar power aims to harvest the practically unlimited supply of solar energy in outer space; renewable energy that, unlike on Earth, is not dependent on the weather or time of day. SSPP is aiming to deploy a constellation of modular spacecraft that collect sunlight, transform it into electricity, then wirelessly transmit that electricity over long distances wherever it is needed.

Illustration of a satellite harvesting energy from sunlight and beaming it down to Earth. (Image by MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images)

A Momentus Vigoride spacecraft carried aboard a SpaceX rocket on the Transporter-6 mission transported the 50-kilogram Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD) to space. The SSPD included three main experiments, each tasked with testing a different key technology.

The DOLCE (Deployable on-Orbit ultraLight Composite Experiment) will demonstrate the architecture, packaging scheme and deployment mechanisms of the modular spacecraft that will eventually make up a kilometre-scale constellation forming a power station. The ALBA, a collection of 32 different photovoltaic cells, will assess the types of cells that are the most effective in space. And the MAPLE (Microwave Array for Power-transfer Low-orbit Experiment) aims to demonstrate wireless power transmission at distance in space.

The Caltech team expects to have a full assessment of the SSPD's performance within a few months of the launch.

"No matter what happens, this prototype is a major step forward," Ali Hajimiri, Caltech's Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering and co-director of SSPP, said in a statement. "It works here on Earth, and has passed the rigorous steps required of anything launched into space. There are still many risks, but having gone through the whole process has taught us valuable lessons. We believe the space experiments will provide us with plenty of additional useful information that will guide the project as we continue to move forward."

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