NASA backs Blue Origin plan to make solar cells on moon

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has won $34.7 million in funding from NASA to support the development of a system for producing solar cells on the moon from materials that are available on site.

The Blue Alchemist project is one of 11 proposals winning support from the space agency’s Tipping Point program, which partners with commercial ventures to back technologies that could contribute to long-term space exploration.

“Harnessing the vast resources in space to benefit Earth is part of our mission, and we’re inspired and humbled to receive this investment from NASA to advance our innovation,” Pat Remias, vice president for Blue Origin’s Capabilities Directorate, Space Systems Development, said today in a news release. “First we return humans to the moon, then we start to ‘live off the land.’”

Blue Alchemist would use lunar regolith — the dust and crushed rock that covers the moon’s surface — as the raw material for solar cells and electrical transmission wire. Oxygen, iron, silicon and aluminum would be extracted through a process known as molten regolith electrolysis, and fed into the manufacturing process. The oxygen could be used for life support or for rocket propulsion.

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin has been working on the technology over the past couple of years, with Earth-produced simulants taking the place of lunar regolith.

Blue Origin is also on the team for another Tipping Point project, led by Washington, D.C.-based Zeno Power Systems. Zeno was awarded $15 million for Project Harmonia, which aims to create a new type of radioisotope power supply for the Artemis moon program that uses americium-241 as fuel.


Blue Origin aims to turn moon dirt into solar cells

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture isn’t just working on rockets and space stations: The Kent, Wash.-based company is also developing a technology that could someday transform the moon’s soil into materials for electricity-producing solar cells and transmission wire.

That branch of Blue Origin’s advanced development programs takes the spotlight in a blog item posted to the company’s website. The underlying approach — called molten regolith electrolysis, or MRE — has been the subject of research for decades, but Blue Origin says it’s refined the technique over the past two years.

“We can make power systems on the moon directly from materials that exist everywhere on the surface, without special substances brought from Earth,” the company says. “We have pioneered the technology and demonstrated all the steps. Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the moon.”


Space Force X-37B mission to test power beaming

X-37B space plane
The Pentagon’s X-37B space plane is encapsulated within the payload fairing of its Atlas 5 launch vehicle. (Boeing Photo)

When a Boeing-built X-37B space plane is sent into orbit this month for the test program’s sixth flight, it will try out a technology that’s been more than a decade in the making: space-based solar power.

An experiment designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into a microwave beam, potentially for transmission to the ground. If such a power-beaming system could be perfected, concentrated microwave energy from space could conceivably be converted to electricity for far-flung military outposts.

Back in 2007, the Pentagon issued a report saying the U.S. military could be an “anchor tenant customer” for space-based power generation systems. That report piggybacked on a NASA study that was written a decade earlier, assessing the feasibility of wireless power transmission from space.

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Heliogen claims solar power breakthrough

Heliogen plant
Heliogen’s commercial facility in Lancaster, Calif., was able to concentrate sunlight at a temperature high enough to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes. (Heliogen Photo)

By Todd Bishop and Alan Boyle

solar energy tech company founded by serial entrepreneur and inventor Bill Gross — and backed by investors including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — says it has developed a way to create concentrated solar energy at temperatures hot enough to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes that contribute significantly to global carbon emissions.

It works by using cutting-edge computer vision technology to align a large array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a precise target. The process creates immense heat, exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit), that can replace traditional fuels such as coal, gas and oil in the production of materials such as cement, steel and petrochemicals.

The Los Angeles-based company, Heliogen, said this morning that it achieved the high-temperature milestone at its commercial facility in Lancaster, Calif.

It described the innovation as a “major step towards solving climate change” that could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes. Such processes are thought to account for one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions.

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Solar-powered Odysseus drone will fly high in 2019

Odysseus illustration
An artist’s conception shows the Odysseus aircraft in flight. (Aurora Flight Sciences Illustration)

Aurora Flight Sciences, a pioneer in experimental flying vehicles that became a Boeing subsidiary last year, says its solar-powered, high-altitude, long-endurance Odysseus drone will take on its first flight in the spring of 2019.

Odysseus has been years in the making, part of an effort that dates back to the Daedalus Project in the 1980s, before Aurora was founded. MIT’s human-powered Daedalus plane set records in 1988 with a 72-mile flight over the Aegean Sea from Crete to Santorini. One of the leaders of that project was John Langford, who went on to become Aurora’s president and CEO.

“Aurora was founded by the idea that technology and innovation can provide powerful solutions to tough problems that affect all of humankind,” Langford said today in a news release. “Odysseus was an idea born out of Daedalus that is now a real solution to advancing the important research around climate change and other atmospheric chemistry problems.”

Aviation Week reported that Odysseus’ first flight has been scheduled to take place in Puerto Rico on April 23, 2019, the anniversary of Daedalus’ Aegean flight. The first battery-powered test craft is currently undergoing ground testing, and two more solar-powered aircraft are in the works, according to Aviation Week.

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TV show reveals turmoil behind solar-powered flight

Solar Impulse pilots and plane
Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg shared the piloting duties on the single-seat Solar Impulse 2 airplane. (Niels Ackermann Photo / Rezo / Solar Impulse)

From the outside, it looked as if the Swiss-led Solar Impulse project smoothly soldiered through adversity as its solar-powered plane made a record-setting trip around the world in 2015 and 2016.

But the perspective was different when seen from the inside: The multimillion-dollar campaign nearly came crashing down when teammates debated whether to go ahead with a crucial Pacific crossing, even though the monitoring system for the autopilot wasn’t working right.

“The engineers were crying,” said Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer who served as Solar Impulse’s co-founder, chairman and one of its pilots. “They were begging me to stop.”

The turmoil as well as the technology behind the globe-girdling, fuel-free odyssey are on full display in “The Impossible Flight,” a two-hour NOVA documentary premiering on PBS tonight.

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Jeff Bezos touts Amazon’s solar campaign

Solar panels at Amazon
Workers write messages on the solar panels installed on the roof of Amazon’s fulfillment center in Baltimore. (Amazon Photo via Twitter)

Tesla CEO Elon Musk isn’t the only tech billionaire who’s high on solar power: Today,  Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tweeted about the latest step in his company’s campaign to install rooftop solar systems on at least 50 of its fulfillment and sortation centers by 2020.

This week it was Baltimore’s turn.

The more than 6,000 panels installed on the roof of the fulfillment center in Baltimore should produce almost 2 megawatts of power, Amazon’s Tom Chandlee told WJZ.

“We’re expecting about a 30 percent savings in our overall energy bill, which is great, because we can pass that savings on to our customers,” Shan Byrne, the Baltimore fulfillment center’s general manager, was quoted as saying.

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