Technologies for space missions – including power supply and management systems – are being made available to address the burgeoning energy needs of Spaceship Earth. The Space and Energy initiative, one of the cross-cutting Technology themes presented at the 2012 ESA Ministerial Council – aims to strengthen technological synergies with the terrestrial energy sector.
This sector is orders of magnitudes larger than the space sector, and now entering a period of dynamic evolution. Future investments to meet rising energy demands exceed a trillion US dollars per year. But business as usual is not an option: the International Energy Agency recognises that global energy sources need to undergo ‘major decarbonisation’ to prevent catastrophic damage to the world’s climate.
The space sector possesses decades of experience in non-carbon power systems – historically serving as a lead market for solar cells, for example. Such an effort should also gain the space sector new customers and applications. Other areas of interest include energy storage and hydrogen power – as one of the main candidates to fuel future car and aircraft, the space sector can apply decades of experience using liquid hydrogen in rockets.
Thermal control is another subject of interest: the space sector can contribute effective methods to cut heat loss, reducing overall energy needs, or else to remove waste heat – such as keeping fuel cells or batteries cool to increase their effectiveness. Robotics and remote control could help with both energy prospecting and production – isolated solar plants might be entirely teleoperated. And satellites in space can assist with oil and gas prospecting while also ensuring renewable energy infrastructure run more effectively, through wind field monitoring and ‘sunshine maps’. Space weather forecasts are also relevant, safeguarding energy infrastructure such as power grids or oil pipelines from harmful power surges or current-driven corrosion.