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Scientists Get Closer to Harnessing Solar Power from Space

The technology could actually work from space

On the night of May 22, a group of researchers and students gathered around a computer monitor on the roof of Caltech's electrical engineering department. The monitors were connected to equipment designed to detect microwave radiation received from a satellite in space. And about 300 miles above them, far over the night's thick cover of clouds, that satellite was about to pass overhead, equipped as a test bed for technologies they had developed to gather solar energy in space and project it down to Earth.

The researchers weren't expecting much. They had already accomplished their primary objective back in March: Using microwave radiation to project electricity across a gap of a few inches to light up a pair of LEDs onboard the spacecraft to test whether their power transfer system, essential for one day getting solar power down to Earth, would hold up in the harsh environment of space. There was a lot of uncertainty over whether they could get a tiny quantity of measurable power down to Earth on their first try. Still, they grew quiet as the time of the satellite pass overhead grew nearer. At 9:57 p.m., the monitors began showing the background radiation the receivers were picking up coalescing into something else: an electrical signal that matched what was being projected by their satellite. They had successfully detected the microwave energy that their novel power transfer system was directing toward Earth.

"It took it a few moments to sink in," said Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at Caltech. "Then everyone got really excited."

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