Imagine looking out over Tokyo Bay from high above and seeing a man-made island in the harbor, 3 kilometers long. A massive net is stretched over the island and studded with 5 billion tiny rectifying antennas, which convert microwave energy into DC electricity. Also on the island is a substation that sends that electricity coursing through a submarine cable to Tokyo, to help keep the factories of the Keihin industrial zone humming and the neon lights of Shibuya shining bright.
But you can’t even see the most interesting part. Several giant solar collectors in geosynchronous orbit are beaming microwaves down to the island from 36 000 km above Earth.
It’s been the subject of many previous studies and the stuff of sci-fi for decades, but space-based solar power could at last become a reality—and within 25 years, according to a proposal from researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The agency, which leads the world in research on space-based solar power systems, now has a technology road map that suggests a series of ground and orbital demonstrations leading to the development in the 2030s of a 1-gigawatt commercial system—about the same output as a typical nuclear power plant.