February 3, 2023

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Space exploration is done with diesel generators – Tu.no

In science fiction, space technology is portrayed as very advanced and future-oriented. In fact, space exploration is done using telescopes powered by diesel generators.

Now the researchers will look at how to make ground-based telescopes more environmentally friendly.

In a desolate desert landscape high in the mountains of northern Chile are a number of telescopes. This place, located in the middle of the Atacama Desert, is one of the best places on earth for space exploration. It is so high that there are only about half as many particles in the air as there are at sea level. In other words, there are fewer particles a telescope has to see in the past to study space. The downside is that the oxygen level is so low that it’s hard to work here. In addition, it is far from people, which means that there is no electricity network here either.

Conditions there are harsh, says Isabelle Fayol, a research fellow at the University of Oslo. There is very little oxygen, there is a large temperature difference throughout the day, and it is very dry.

Usually, energy is the last thing on their mind

Viole researches energy systems. Its mission is to figure out the best and most environmentally friendly way to get electricity for one of the newest telescopes to be built in the Atacama Desert.


APEX Telescope in the Atacama Desert. Photo: Maria Louisa Laude

She says that this project is unique.

– Astronomers usually want the most advanced technological solutions for the telescope itself. Fayol explains that accessing energy is the last thing on their minds, and then they take on something simple that they know works.

In the AtLAST project, they engaged energy engineers from the very beginning to see possible solutions.

One reason telescopes run on older power solutions, Fayol thinks, is because the telescopes are funded for a few years at a time. As a result, there is no money for solutions that are only profitable in the long run. Solar panels often don’t pay for themselves until six to ten years later, but no project funding tends to last that long.

– However, there are some space telescopes that cover up to 40-50 percent of their power needs with solar panels, explains Fayol.

Devices worth millions cannot afford power outages

If a greater proportion of energy is to be renewable, researchers must find clever ways to do so. According to Fuel, researchers must find good ways to store energy. Solar panels can only provide electricity when the sun is shining. In addition, other power sources must supply electricity to the telescope if it is cloudy.

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Some instruments have to be cooled to 0.25 Kelvin, or minus 272.9 degrees Celsius, says Fayol. Therefore, they cannot tolerate the uncertainty of energy supply.

– But why not build an electricity cable from the nearest city?

Fuel believes that building an energy source from the nearest city, San Pedro de Atacama, which is 43 kilometers away, is possible. But it is a political problem. First of all, there is little money for this type of project. Additionally, this is difficult because all actors who have interests in telescopes will have to cooperate. Sometimes these representatives have very different interests. It reduces the likelihood of agreement on such a project.


Atacama desert.
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest regions in the world. Photo: Maria Louisa Laude

It is also possible to connect the telescopes to the national power grid. Then there will be 100 to 150 kilometers of copper cable in a deserted area. Then another challenge arises:

– The cable is made of copper, and copper is very expensive, explains Violle.

So there is a real risk that such a cable could be stolen.

Emissions corresponding to a Norwegian town

So how much emissions can we actually talk about? Imagine a group of trucks traveling several hundred kilometers over the mountains. It’s full of diesel. A few days pass, then a new delivery arrives. Cooling the devices requires huge amounts of energy to minus 272.9 degrees. Study space is neither cost effective nor environmentally friendly.

Telescopes close to where AtLAST will be built require a total of 33 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per year, says Fayol.

This is equivalent to the energy of a Norwegian city with a population of 1,435. In emissions, this corresponds to 18,000 to 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide2or 24 tons of carbon dioxide2 for every scientific article.

It says that the average Norwegian emits 8.2 tons of CO2 per year. In other words, emissions associated with space telescopes are astronomical.

So why not just cut out that search?

It will check dust and cold matter

Many important discoveries and new technologies come from basic research. Knowledge of greenhouse gases has also been discovered through space research and the exploration of Venus, says Fayol.

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The now-planned AtLAST telescope will, among other things, examine cold dust and clouds in the universe. This is something we know very little about today. Researchers know very well what they want to study, but they have no idea what they will find there.

For example, AtLAST will contribute to the study of the chemistry and dynamics of the atmospheres of our nearest planets. A telescope can also be used to look at extragalactic phenomena, especially cold matter.

AtLAST will be the best telescope ever built with the goal of mapping the cold structures of the universe on a large scale, writes Claudia Ciccone, associate professor of cosmology at the University of Oslo.



What can replace diesel generators?

Guillermo Valenzuela Venegas investigates how weather conditions affect renewable energy. His role on the project includes checking for the most suitable locations for solar panels.

– Although this is one of the driest places in the world, there will also be snow during the year because it is located at such a high altitude, Venegas explains.

He says it is important to know where there is the most solar radiation in a year. The Atacama is one of the regions in the world where solar radiation is the best. Then other factors have a lot to say:

– For example, we have to look at how altitude affects the impact of solar panels, snow cover, accessibility in terms of maintenance and what it will cost to install and operate a solar system there, Valenzuela Venegas explains.

The investigations conducted by the researchers so far have shown that there are some days when the weather is bad. It requires that they have a solid power supply, but how big does a solar garden have to be to withstand a few days of storms?

Planning for the use of new technology

To be as sustainable as possible, energy storage must also be carefully planned. The researchers next look at a combination of batteries and hydrogen storage. There is only one problem. The technological solutions required have not been well tested.

These batteries and hydrogen storage cost a lot today, but we think it will be the cheapest technology in 2030, Fuel explains.

But what if technology doesn’t get cheaper?

– In our project, we built this into the model, says Fayol. – If we take into account that war or other things can increase prices, or that technology does not improve, we still think that it would be cheaper and better to switch to renewable energy. Then prices will also become less volatile because oil prices are greatly affected by things that are happening in the world.

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Night sky in the Atacama Desert.
Night sky in the Atacama Desert. Photo: Maria Louisa Laude

She further explains that if the world does not get affordable hydrogen technology or batteries as the researchers predicted, they will need a larger solar garden, but it will still pay off rather than continue with the current system. Viole’s mission is to find the best possible climate and price solution. The interesting thing is that they will still need the diesel units.

Planning for diesel generators in the background

If all the electricity came from solar cells, they would have to build a lot more solar cells and store than if they had a diesel generator on hand. Therefore, Fuel believes that the cheapest solution would be to use a diesel generator during periods of bad weather. This means that approximately 5 percent of the energy needs over the course of the year will be covered by diesel generators. According to Fuel, the model shows that it is not feasible to scale up the solar park and energy storage systems, such as batteries and hydrogen, so that they can provide electricity on the few cloudy days. She believes this is the advantage of doing such analyses. The garden should not be too big. Preliminary results seem to show that it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to have a diesel generator than to have a much larger solar farm.

– This is the optimization: we have to look at what is the cheapest and best solution, says Fayol. Then we have to think about what is actually possible.

She herself believes that the best thing is to build a collective power cable between the nearest city and telescopes near AtLAST, but she believes that there is no political will to implement such a project now. Thus, the solution they have left is a mix of solar cells, batteries, hydrogen and a small percentage of diesel in the back hand. When completed, the AtLAST telescope will be among the most environmentally friendly and high-tech telescopes in the world.

The article was first published on Titan.uio.no