Under the microwave beam concept, satellites could provide reliable power anywhere on the planet or even to spacecraft or other satellites in orbit. Credit: Handout.

Imagine a world where satellites could capture solar power and beam it down anywhere on the planet or even to spacecraft or other satellites in orbit.

We aren’t quite there yet, but the concept has already been demonstrated, and a major upcoming test has been unveiled by the United States Air Force.

The shadowy X-37B, the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable spacecraft, is set to launch for its sixth flight on May 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

While most of the payloads set for the flight are standard fare for space experiments, at least the ones that are disclosed, one of them has immense potential implications, Brett Tingley of The War Zone reported.

The X-37B’s upcoming mission, known as both Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) and US Space Force-7 (USSF-7), will carry out missions that will assess the effects of cosmic radiation and other “space effects” on plant seeds and various material samples, the report said.

According to the Space Force press release, another payload will be an experimental system designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that is capable of capturing solar power and beaming that energy back to Earth in the form of microwaves — a system that has enormous implications when it comes to long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In addition, it could allow satellites to provide reliable power anywhere on the planet or even to spacecraft or other satellites in orbit, the War Zone reported.

In October 2019, the NRL conducted a three-day long demonstration of the Navy’s latest power-beaming capabilities at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the demonstration, the NRL transmitted a completely silent, invisible beam of 2-kilowatt laser power over 300 meters through the air over attendees’ heads, the report said. The demonstration was meant to showcase the safety and technological readiness of this transformative concept, The War Zone reported.

As far as the aforementioned applications of this capability, military outposts in remote locations would no longer have to rely on low-power solar systems or haul heavy generators and large amounts of fuel, but instead could bring a rectifying antenna, or rectenna, to capture energy in the form of microwaves beamed from satellites overhead.

In addition, areas ravaged by natural disasters could use the system to generate electricity to aid in reconstruction efforts long before traditional electrical infrastructure is rebuilt. It could even power autonomous ships at sea, The War Zone reported. 

Dr. Paul Jaffe, an electronics engineer who is leading the NRL’s research into power beaming, says that the technology will open up entirely new frontiers in terms of long-endurance unmanned aircraft.

“If you have an electric drone that can fly more than an hour, you’re doing pretty well,” Jaffe said. “If we had a way to keep those drones and UAVs flying indefinitely, that would have really far-reaching implications.”

Still, low earth orbit satellites circle the planet at incredibly high speeds and their maneuverability is limited, so there will be limitations to the Navy’s latest beamed power system, The War Zone reported.

A constellation of satellites would likely be necessary to have a truly 24/7 supply of power, enabling UAVs to be “passed” from satellite to satellite for continuous recharging.

Meanwhile, the China Academy of Space Technology claimed to already be testing such a system in 2019 and said that a fully-functional Chinese microwave beaming power station in space could be deployed by 2050. 

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