The Sun is a colossal source of energy, a tiny fraction of which is converted into electricity on Earth using solar panels. However, these are inefficient because much of the time it is dark and cloudy and the solar energy has been filtered through the atmosphere, Dr Sharman said.
These panels also take up huge areas of land that could be used to plant trees, grow crops, build houses or be left to nature. But tapping the energy of the Sun with solar panels on our empty, cloudless Moon could provide a new source of clean energy.
Dr Sharman said: “The Moon could go a long way to solving Earth’s energy and climate problems. Putting solar panels on the Moon would be a very quick and easy way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Solar panels on Earth are inefficient because it is dark half the time and often cloudy. Moon panels would mean that we could get energy even when the Earth is dark – and there are no clouds on the Moon.”
Dr Sharman is calling on space agencies around the world to work collaboratively to harvest the Sun’s energy so these promising technologies can be properly tested and developed. “These are still concepts at the moment, but I believe they are realistic because they have been shown to be scientifically and technically feasible,” she said. “Within a few years, they could be making a big difference to Earth.”
Next Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, part of a long-term space mission that helped to spawn the environmental movement. Using the Moon to harvest solar energy could help the environment on Earth, added Dr Sharman, who in 1989 was selected from 13,000 applicants for astronaut training to work as a scientist on the British-Soviet mission Project Juno.
She was 27 when she took part in the eight-day Soyuz TM-12 expedition in 1991, alongside cosmonauts Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalev. Most of her time was spent at the Mir space station, carrying out medical and agricultural tests, photographing the British Isles and participating in an amateur radio hook-up with UK school pupils. She returned to Earth on 26 May 1991.
These days she works at Imperial College in London as an outreach ambassador, encouraging children to study science at university.
Looking to the future, the solar energy collected on the Moon or from satellite in lunar orbit could be converted at source, first into solar energy and then into electrical energy. This could then be converted into microwaves using a transponder and sent down to Earth where they would be picked up by antenna and converted back into electricity. Alternatively, the solar energy could be converted into a giant laser beam and sent back to Earth, where it would be picked up by a huge solar panel and turned into electricity.
The next generation of Moon missions will largely focus on its role as a “pit stop” for sending the first astronauts to Mars and potentially even colonising the Red Planet, Dr Sharman said.
The Moon is well suited to this role because its low gravity dramatically reduces the amount of fuel needed to propel a rocket to Mars.