Space Solar Farms Edge Closer to Reality: Pioneering Study Shows Viability

Satellite Solar Panels Art Concept

Recent research has proven the viability of lightweight, cost-efficient solar panels for space, opening the door to potential solar farms in orbit and marking a significant step in renewable energy technology. (Artist’s concept)

New research from the Universities of Surrey and Swansea suggests that it’s viable to create affordable, lightweight solar panels capable of generating power in space.

The first study of its kind, which monitored a satellite for six years across 30,000 orbits, examined the panels’ power generation and resilience to solar radiation. These insights could lead to the development of commercially feasible solar farms in space.

Advancements in Solar Cell Technology

Professor Craig Underwood, Emeritus Professor of Spacecraft Engineering at the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, said: “We are very pleased that a mission designed to last one year is still working after six. These detailed data show the panels have resisted radiation and their thin-film structure has not deteriorated in the harsh thermal and vacuum conditions of space.  This ultra-low mass solar cell technology could lead to large, low-cost solar power stations deployed in space, bringing clean energy back to Earth – and now we have the first evidence that the technology works reliably in orbit.” 

Researchers from the University of Swansea’s Centre for Solar Energy Research developed new solar cells from cadmium telluride. The panels cover a larger area, are more lightweight, and provide far greater power than current technology – as well as being relatively cheap to manufacture. 

Scientists from the University of Surrey designed instruments that measured their performance in orbit. The satellite itself was designed and built at the Surrey Space Centre in partnership with a team of trainee engineers from the Algerian Space Agency (ASAL). 

Potential for Commercial Viability

Although the cells’ power output became less efficient over time, researchers believe their findings prove that solar power satellites work and could be commercially viable. 

Dr Dan Lamb from the University of Swansea said  “The successful flight test of this novel thin film solar cell payload has leveraged funding opportunities to further develop this technology. Large area solar arrays for space applications are a rapidly expanding market and demonstrations such as this help to build on the UK’s world-class reputations for space technology.” 

Reference: “IAC-22-C3.3.8 Six years of spaceflight results from the AlSat-1N Thin-Film Solar Cell (TFSC) experiment” by Craig Underwood, Dan Lamb, Stuart Irvine, Simran Mardhani and Abdelmadjid Lassakeur, 26 August 2023, Acta Astronautica.
DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2023.08.034

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