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Published on February 21st, 2018 | by Tina Casey


Group Hug: US “Solar Sail” Thin Film Solar Company Heads For Deep Space

February 21st, 2018 by  

File this one under G for Group Hug for US taxpayers. The super thin film solar technology of Colorado-based Ascent Solar was nurtured along in part by US taxpayers through the Energy Department during the Obama Administration, and now the company has won a juicy slot in a high profile, “solar sail” deep space exploration program.

As for America First, in this case not so much. US President* Donald Trump swung the budget axe against NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in 2017 and he still has key programs of the famed US space agency on the chopping block for 2018, so no surprises here: Ascent is hitching its new thin film photovoltaic star to the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt (that’s a mouthful so we’re going with DLR).

Thin Film Solar: Group Hug For US Taxpayers!

The DLR connection is all the more ironic considering that Ascent’s history with US taxpayers runs deep. Hey, we mean that in a good way! After all, publicly funded research gives each of us citizens a share in the credit for some of the world’s most earth-shattering innovations, so group hug.

Where were we? Oh right, Ascent Solar. The company already had 20 years or so worth of research in its pocket by the time it was formed in 2005, as a spinoff from the Colorado based ITN Energy Systems innovation accelerator family. ITN credits both public and private sector funding for its success in pushing cutting edge tech from the lab to the marketplace.

The Obama administration’s SunShot low-cost solar program coughed up $315,000 in 2009 to help Ascent improve its CIGS thin film cell technology, and it fell into the CleanTechnica radar in 2013 (for those of you new to the topic, thin film refers to a photovoltaic technology that is typically less efficient that conventional silicon solar cells but makes up the difference in light weight, flexibility, and low manufacturing costs among other desirable features. CIGS is shorthand for a material typically used in thin film solar cells).

In 2011 Ascent garnered an innovation recognition from Time Magazine. The recognitions began piling up after that, and the company won an Air Force demonstration contract in 2012, followed by a splashy advertising contract with the Denver Broncos, and a private sector drone contract, and the launch of its EnerPlex line of portable PV products.

In 2014 Ascent won a contract with San Diego’s Vanguard Space Technologies to provide lightweight thin film solar modules for its space equipment including unmanned aerial modules (Vanguard was later acquired by New Mexico-based SolAero, btw).

Holy Gossamer Solar Sails, Batman!

So much for the CleanTechnica radar. We haven’t kept up much with Ascent in the last few years, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge.

The space race development is the latest in a long list of PV news from the company.

Here’s the lowdown from Ascent:

…the company has been selected by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) for further testing to develop custom PV products designed specifically for DLR’s upcoming solar array deployment system.

DLR’s new GOSOLAR project is aimed at testing the deployment technology needed for a large-scale solar power generation system that will use a flexible photovoltaic membrane. Ascent’s technology will allow DLR to address the very challenging current requirements that come with this innovative approach to solar-sail deployment in a gossamer formation.

Got all that? DLR  is betting part of the deep space ranch on a new type of deep space PV deployment it’s calling GOSSAMER-1:


…With our new project GOSOLAR ahead, the focus is now entirely on gossamer deployment systems for huge thin-film photovoltaic arrays. Based on the previous achievements in the field of deployment technology and qualification strategies, new technology for the integration of thin-film photovoltaics will be developed and qualified with the goal of a first in-orbit technology demonstration.

DLR is looking at a time frame of about five years, starting with developing the technology for deploying a 25 m² gossamer solar power generator along with a flexible PV membrane.

Considering the challenges of deploying large solar arrays in space, DLR has set its sights initially on a relatively modest low voltage system fabricated with  off-the-shelf products, so stay tuned for more on that.

Here’s Ascent co-founder and CTO Dr. Joseph Armstrong enthusing about the company’s future in deep space:

We have been gaining traction in the deep space community, in part because we have a unique, lightweight and flexible product, but also because our monolithic integration offers greater design latitude that traditional crystalline products do not. We have demonstrated the ability to adjust the physical dimensions of our modules to meet the need of customers, and with unique deployment schemes employed by DLR, correctly sizing our solution to accommodate proper stowage and deployment is critical.

As for NASA, Trump or no Trump the agency is still alive and kicking and looking at Mars. The latest word is that Australia’s Gilmour Space Technologies is pairing up with the agency on a water-harvesting Mars rover.

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*As of this writing.

Photos: (top, screenshot) Space PV array via Ascent Solar; (bottom, cropped) GOSSAMER-1 PV array via DLR. 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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