Using solar panels in space to power spacecraft may seem like science fiction but actually the first commercial use for solar cells, in 1958,are on the satellite. Photovoltaic solar panels, which convert solar energy into electricity, are installed in various spacecraft operating in the inner solar system (but not the outer solar system, where sunlight is not strong enough), to run sensors, active heating and cooling and telemetry , and to provide the energy required for propulsion.
How Spaceships Use Solar Power
Most spacecraft rely entirely on solar panels to provide them with the energy they need to run their equipment, so large arrays of solar panels are designed to rotate so that they are constantly facing the sun even as the spacecraft is moving. Tracking systems are often integrated into arrays to ensure they are always in the sun’s direct path. If the satellite’s batteries are fully charged or the amount of electricity generated is greater than the amount needed, operators on Earth can point the panels away from the sun.
Types of Solar Cells Used
Most of the solar cells used in panels in space are made from gallium arsenide rather than silicon, which is the more common material used in solar panels on Earth. Although more expensive, gallium arsenide cells can absorb sunlight photons with an efficiency of up to 10,000 times greater than silicon. Spacecraft also tend to be equipped with solar concentrators, which are much more efficient than the average solar panel on Earth. Solar concentrators do just that – they concentrate sunlight using lenses to maximize the amount absorbed and therefore also maximize the amount of electricity that can be generated. Although some large-scale solar operations on Earth now also use solar concentrators, they are ideal in space because they work best when there is a single light source to focus on the concentrator. Many solar panels used on spacecraft are equipped with tightly packed rectangular solar cells rather than the circular solar wafers typically used in solar panels on Earth, which allows them to cover nearly 100% of the sun’s exposed surface compared to 90% on the surface. Earth bound panels.
The Future of Space-Based Solar Power
Like solar technology on Earth, solar panels used in space will become more effective as efficiency increases, i.e. by reducing the number of solar panels needed while increasing the power generated per cell. The most interesting developments in space-based solar power is the concept of collecting solar power in outer space and sending it back to Earth for use here on our planet. This potential is huge because the available solar energy in outer space is billions of times greater than what we can capture on Earth. Using solar-powered satellites, solar cells can collect photons 24 hours a day, without the problem of additional weather, than 12 on Earth, and that energy intensity is much greater. There are currently concerns regarding the cost and methods of sending energy back to Earth, but, ultimately, space-based solar power could significantly help solve our energy problems.
Emily Buckley is a journalist and copywriter & is passionate about proclaiming a future powered by such renewable energy solarand is currently writing a series of articles on the subject.