Feb 8, 2011
The utilization of solar energy from space is well within reach. But the sheer concept is out of grasp for many Americans.
Through graphic imaging, students in Ohio University’s Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab are working to change that paradox by helping to translate complex scientific ideas into concepts that laymen can understand.
“[The idea for space-based solar power] has been around a long time, but a lot of people think it’s some sort of death ray in space. We just need to make sure that people understand that placing solar satellites in space is a safe, efficient and green way to get energy,” said recent OHIO graduate Kyle Perkins.
As a student, Perkins worked with a team of GRID Lab students to create one of the first University-produced visualizations on solar power satellites (shown above). This opportunity will soon be extended to other digital media labs, thanks to an OHIO-initiated international design competition relating to energy collection in space.
Headed by Professor of Media Arts and Studies Don Flournoy, editor of the Online Journal of Space Communication,* the SunSat International Design Competition is intended to accelerate the production of next-generation satellites that will collect solar energy in space and deliver it to earth as electricity, according to the competition website.
Such SunSats, or power satellites, will be capable of capturing energy from the sun in much greater quantities than terrestrial solar technologies, offering an alternative energy source that is both non-polluting and sustainable.
The development of SunSats depends upon more than technological advancements. Media understanding and public acceptance, which will prompt the pursuit and funding of these technologies, is also key.
This is where digital media labs can be an invaluable resource, according to GRID Lab Director John Bowditch.
“We not only design games, but we’re really interested in designing what we call interactive systems – using animation, games and simulation media to communicate difficult-to-grasp concepts to businesses, government, non-profit organizations and the public-at-large,” said Bowditch.
In the case of energy collection in space, Flournoy said the goal is to link space scientists, engineers and business people to digital media labs in universities across the globe for purposes of advancing this energy agenda. The Ohio University-based SunSat Design Competition is endorsed by the National Space Society* and the Society of Satellite Professionals International.*
Five undergraduate students, three graduate students and three OHIO faculty members collaborated to produce “Seawater Desalination via Solar Power Satellites.” The visualization is based on an article by Space Environment Technologies’ chief scientist, Kent Tobiska, in the fall 2009 edition of the Online Journal of Space Communication.
The students were in the audience when Flournoy and Tobiska, who now sits on the SunSat Competition Advisory Panel, presented the visualization at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago in May.
Though this particular video will not be submitted in the SunSat Competition, it serves as a “perfect example (of) what the contest is all about,” according to SunSat Competition Manager Brian Woods, a graduate student in communication and development.
It also serves as proof of what students are capable of achieving on a short timescale and in areas where they are not subject experts, added Bowditch.
Ohio University students will have a similar opportunity this spring through a newly created undergraduate (MDIA 498) and graduate (MDIA 694) course, titled “Creative Visualization.” Developed by Flournoy and Bowditch, the course will put four teams to work on four separate solar power satellite challenges.
Student designs will be displayed at Ohio University’s Student Research and Creative Activity Expo on May 13, as well as the International Space Development Conference on May 20 in Huntsville, Ala., said Flournoy.
Perkins, who now runs a video game design company out of Athens, said the project testifies to the power of visual imagery.
“This was a little out of my area… but it’s one of the more fulfilling things I’ve done,” he said.
And according to Flournoy, it’s putting Ohio University on the map.
“This is a significant development in alternative energy. It’s global in scope. Space Solar Power was the National Space Society’s top priority in 2010,” Flournoy said. “It’s on the front edge of knowledge, science and innovation that our students and faculty are involved in. We are pleased to be prominent in this regard and will be even more so as the year goes on.”