Using Solar Energy in Space Exploration

Power is vital in space crafts as they need to be utterly reliable even when operating in extreme environments. As technology advances, there is a growing need for more energy to power the complex spacecraft. For this reason, solar energy provides a much-needed solution for space exploration.

Solar energy is limitless. It can transform the future in space. There has been a lot of research surrounding space-based solar. We will look at the progress that has been made in this sector.

Solar Power in Space: Powering Space Exploration

solar spacecraft

Solar panels have been powering space programs such as satellites, space stations, and spacecraft. The US launched the first solar-powered satellite, Vanguard 1, marking a crucial stage of solar panels’ presence in space. Let us look at the PV application in space exploration.

A Brief History of Solar Energy in Space

After Vanguard 1 launch in 1958, it provided a breakthrough in using solar to power satellites. Though it went dark after 6 years, it ushered in a new era in space technology.

Since that time, space technology has advanced as solar has grown to become a reliable energy source. Since the introduction of solar energy in 1960, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has always relied on solar panels. Even with solar energy usage, you will be surprised to discover that no NASA transport vehicles have ever relied on solar energy during flights.

Apollo, Mercury, or the Space Shuttle, did not use solar technology. However, recently, the privately owned Space X launched into space integrated with solar technology.

Despite not using solar energy for space transport vehicles, the US has used solar on many other occasions. Older Americans can recall Skylab, the first American space station, as their first encounter with solar panels. Skylab had an output of 10 kW of solar energy, and it was launched in 1973. It also coupled that with hydrogen fuel cells.

Since then, NASA launched several space probes powered by solar panels to explore our solar system. Such included the Mars Observer, the Hubble space telescope, and the Rosetta probe. NASA  also explored exploration away from the sun by launching Juno. It flew to Jupiter utilizing 280 sq. ft of solar panels.

Powering the International Space Station (ISS)

Currently, the ISS (International Space Station) depends on an advanced solar array that supports life and powers research. The ISS’s various sections do not have a common electrical generating system. The American and Russian sections have different and separate electrical systems.

The Russian section comprises the Pirs or Pier docking module, the Zarya cargo module, Poisk and the Rassvat research module, and the Zvezda service module. They are powered by 28V DC, which is the same as the power used to launch. Each section contains a series of solar arrays: four small sets on the Russian side and four large pairs on the US side. A series of converters are used for power-sharing.

According to NASA, 262,400 solar cells cover about 27,000 square feet in the eight arrays. The Electrical Power System (EPS) contains eight miles of connected wire.

The Panels

The panels found on ISS are quite different from the ones that we use to power our homes. First, they are two-sided or bi-facial. This feature allows them to harvest power from various angles as the station keeps revolving around the earth.

The station travels at around 17,500 miles per hour while orbiting the earth. It experiences darkness for about 35 minutes after each rotation. Not to mention, the station’s movement in and out of the sun shades some of the panels. For this reason, at any given time, the station’s 60% is dedicated to charging batteries.

In space, heat is also a problem for solar panels. Radiators or a series of baffles running along the array base dispel the heat into outer space away from the station.

The Batteries

Even in space, solar energy needs storage. A bank of nickel-hydrogen batteries backs up the ISS electrical system. They are crucial for the work in the ISS and life support. The batteries have a 6.5-year life span. Due to system maintenance, they are changed intermittently. The nickel-hydrogen batteries are currently being replaced with lithium-ion batteries as they are smaller and much more efficient.

Solar Powered Space Travel

In 2010, Japan launched IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun). It is a 700-pound satellite that completed its mission after sailing past Venus. It was powered by the sun, and it relied on solar panels.

Also, in 2015, LightSail, which is an 11-pound spacecraft, launched. It was solar-powered. Bill Nye partnered with his organization, The Planetary Society, to make this happen. The goal of the organization is to promote and support space research powered by solar. In the future, interplanetary vehicles are likely to rely on PVs as a source of electricity.

Space-Based Solar

The goal of space-based solar is to allow solar energy production for use on the earth. Since the space age began, most scientists have explored the idea. Though futuristic, this is an idea that could change how we approach solar energy.

A solar array can’t produce power at night. However, in space, the sun always shines. When the earth tilts, it does not affect the sun’s intensity or how it can be collected. SBSP can also be useful in providing reliable, limitless energy to the whole population on earth.

Solar energy is a fascinating field for space exploration. A slight look at what technology and innovation has helped to accomplish shows that this field is still in its infancy. The development of state of the art solar array in the ISS continues this fete. As we explore this idea further, newer and better ways of exploiting the sun’s energy to conquer space become possible. What’s more, the idea of exploring and conquering our galaxy and beyond could become a reality.

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