NASA is serious about sending people to Mars one of these days, and the agency isn’t letting any grass grow under its feet. In the latest news, the New Mexico-based company SolAero has nailed down a contract to make the solar power modules for NASA’s Gateway spacecraft. If all goes according to plan, Gateway will orbit the Moon and enable a whole series of lunar landings, with an eyeball on jumping off from the Orb of Night to Mars and perhaps beyond. No, for real!
SolAero hasn’t crossed the CleanTechnica radar before, but if you’ve been following the NASA’s Mars lander Insight, you’ll know them. SolAero solar panels are integrated into the flower-like solar array that powers the world’s only Mars craft with its own Twitter account.
You’ll also know SolAero if you make satellites and similar equipment. Here’s the rundown:
“SolAero Technologies Corp. is a leading provider of high efficiency solar cells, solar panels and composite structural products for satellite and aerospace applications. We provide solar power solutions and precision aerospace structures to the global space markets, encompassing a wide array of applications including civil space exploration, science and earth observation, defense intelligence and communication, and commercial telecommunications industries.”
SolAero will add its solar power modules to Gateway through a contract with Colorado-based Maxar Technologies.
This won’t be SolAero’s first go-around with Maxar. The two are longtime partners. According to SolAero Persident and CEO Brad Clevenger, SolAero has also played a role in more than 30 missions with NASA over the past 20 years.
Good. All caught up.
Solar Power, Quadruple-Junction Style
NASA tapped Maxar just last May to build and demo the power and propulsion element for the Artemis lunar lander element of Gateway, with the aim of landing US astro-people on the moon by 2024. That’s how fast things are moving along.
The meat of SolAero’s solar power modules is the company’s space-hardy Z4J quadruple junction solar cell, designed specifically for space applications. The solar power modules will provide almost 70 kilowatts to Gateway’s systems.
For those of you new to the solar cell junction topic, junction refers to — loosely speaking — different materials in a solar cell. The purpose of multiple materials is to squeeze more solar energy conversion action out of the same solar cell.
Multiple junctions also typically bump up the cost of solar power, which is why simple silicon solar cells continue to rule the mass market for rooftop solar and other Earthbound applications.
Don’t hold your breath for a SolAero on your rooftop to power your home. The company’s ultra-efficient solar cells are not exactly easy on the pocketbook, but the difference in solar conversion efficiency is pretty impressive. The most efficient silicon-based rooftop solar panels on the market today claim an efficiency rating just over the 20% mark. SolAero’s Z4J solar cell weighs in at about 33%.
The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has demonstrated a quadruple-junction solar cell with a conversion efficiency of about 46%. There are other examples in the 40+ range for solar conversion in a multi-junction solar cell but that’s without taking production and manufacturing at scale into consideration along with some key factors necessary for space applications including weight, size, and ability to withstand the conditions of, well, space.
Wait, Are We Really Going To Mars With A Solar Power Assist?
The big issue is how to get people over there from Earth, and NASA has apparently latched on to the answer: you don’t. First you get people to a way station on or orbiting the Moon, and then you get to Mars, and beyond.
The Gateway spacecraft is part of the broader Gateway project, which is aimed at setting up a permanent human camp on the Moon within the next ten years.
As for the timeline, the space race is on! Here’s NASA on the subject:
“NASA is working to build and identify scientific instruments and technology demonstrations for Moon deliveries by U.S. companies as soon as 2019. These deliveries will help us learn more about the Moon, and provide opportunities to test new lander technologies.”
They better hurry, 2019 is on the way out. Meanwhile, here on Earth NASA will be making reusable landers that can carry humans back and forth, as well as other large pieces of equipment.
The Gateway spacecraft itself has a target launch date of 2022, so hold on to your hats. More pieces will be added over the years so think of it as a Moon-orbiting version of the International Space Station.
If this all seems rather pie in the sky, consider that in 2011 the US Defense Projects Research Agency — you know, the folks who invented the Internet — kicked off something called the 100 Year Starship project, which aims at setting up a long term R&D platform for interstellar travel.
CleanTechnica last checked in on 100 Year Starship back in 2012, so stay tuned while we reach out to them for an update.
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Image: Gateway space project concept via NASA.
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