WASHINGTON – The Air Force Research Laboratory and Northrop Grumman have successfully converted solar energy to radio frequency, an essential first step toward a future satellite system that could beam energy from space to soldiers on the ground.

The ground experiment tested one of the key pieces of hardware needed for the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) Project, an innovative system that would use a satellite to collect solar energy on orbit, convert it to radio frequency, and then beam it to users on Earth who could convert it back into energy to power equipment carried by dismounted soldiers, vehicles or even a forward operating base. Lab officials see the effort as a way to get reliable solar power to remote military forces without having to carry around large solar panels with them.

AFRL and Northrop Grumman were able to test the components of the “sandwich tile,” a solar panel that can convert the energy collected in RF. The panel has two layers: One of highly efficient photovoltaic cells to collect solar energy, and a second that enables the RF conversion and beamforming.

“The SSPIDR Project office is very excited about this baseline capability being exercised in the laboratory environment,” said SSPIDR deputy project manager Melody Martinez in a statement. “Converting solar energy into RF energy at the component-level is a pivotal step to realizing space-based solar power beaming on a larger scale.”

“The successful conversion of sunlight into RF energy in a lightweight and scalable architecture is a significant step forward in delivering the technology building blocks to achieve the Arachne mission,” said Jay Patel, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s remote sensing programs business unit, in a statement.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor on the effort, having been awarded a $100 million contract in 2018 to develop the payload. The sandwich tile will be an important part of Arachne, the space-based demonstration that will attempt to beam energy to Earth after converting it to RF. Arachne is expected to launch in 2025.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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