Whatever humanity does off-planet, it will depend on energy. How will we power our activities as we leave the friendly confines of Earth? One obvious solution lies in solar power, at least here in the Solar System. To learn more about the potential of solar power, we spoke to Peter Toth, the CEO of Extraterrestrial Power. This firm, based in New Zealand and exploring opportunities in Australia, plans to develop silicon solar cells to power humanity’s activities in space, particularly on the Moon.
Why is it important to develop power systems off-planet?
There are many reasons why, including environmental consciousness here on Earth and long-term settlement of space. We believe that humanity will step beyond the boundaries of our planet in the near future. It will create new habitats and new industries in the Solar System. Off-planet, satellites and space stations will need power to function. By developing different power systems we can support all sorts of activities, including those that have direct benefits here on Earth. We can better observe weather, for instance, making us more knowledgeable and potentially more resilient when it comes to managing agriculture, horticulture, water resources, etc.
Farther beyond Earth orbit, we can find ourselves in many other environments – in space, on other planets, or on asteroids, for instance. According to our logic, regardless of where you are, it pays to have a power system developed right where you are. If you have a locally made power system, then you don’t need to send as much cargo from Earth to scale power. You overcome a long supply chain that costs valuable time and money. Shipping power systems made on the Moon, or on other planets or asteroids that have smaller gravity wells than Earth, is easier, cheaper, and more energy efficient.
It’s like when you first move out to college – your parents pack you the food for the week and you take as much as you just want, or can. But as you mature, you realize you want to cook. You have the exact same ingredients as your parents but in your local store, so you start making your own food. You can share with your roommates first. Later, you can cook larger quantities for more people, maybe selling enough to open a restaurant or a canteen. Following that analogy, we would like to be the canteen of power on the Moon.
Why is solar power in particular an attractive option for powering human activities off-planet?
As mentioned before, we believe humanity will spread throughout the Solar System. Someday, we may spread even farther, though sadly we don’t think this will happen in our lifetimes (unless our lifetimes can be lengthened, of course!). The most obvious generator of energy we have here in the Solar System is our Sun. It’s the most obvious option for power as long as we are this close to it. It’s freely available. Furthermore, its use causes no legal, ethical, or moral issues like land ownership and mining for other energy resources does. You are not taking solar power from anyone, and it’s renewable for the next four billion years at least. The bulk components of solar cells (silicon and aluminum) are available everywhere on the Moon’s surface. There’s no need to start large-scale underground mining for radioisotope materials. So, on the Moon especially, solar power offers an ideal solution for fast and cheap energy generation.
What are you doing with regards to off-planet solar energy development?
Our long-term goal is helping humanity settle in space by powering up the Solar System. As a start, we are working on developing low-cost, space-grade, radiation-tolerant, silicon solar cells. The plan is for them to be integrated onto flexible solar arrays that customers can simply attach to their satellites, providing improved levels of available electricity. Later on we would like to manufacture solar cells on the Moon from local resources, providing power (wired or wirelessly) wherever your operations might be. We want to become the electricity provider of the Moon. That’s our roadmap to become that canteen we talked about before.