Researchers in the UK say it could be possible to produce low-cost, lightweight solar panels that can generate energy in space. Soon, this could pave the way for commercially viable solar farms in space.
In a first study of its kind, researchers from the universities of Surrey and Swansea, followed a satellite over six years, observing how the panels generated power and weathered solar radiation over 30,000 orbits. The study for this research was published recently in the journal Acta Astronautica.
According to a press statement, researchers from the University of Swansea's Centre for Solar Energy Research (CSER) developed new solar cells from cadmium telluride for this research. 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, the statement explains.
Four prototype cells were flown as part of the thin-film solar cell (TFSC) experimental payload, developed by CSER and the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), which was launched on a cube-sat (cube satellite), developed in collaboration with the Algerian Space Agency and UK Space Agency, in September 2016.
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, the statement explains, adding: “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.”
“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,” Professor Craig Underwood, Emeritus Professor of Spacecraft Engineering at the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, said in the statement. “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.”
Solar farms, or photovoltaic power stations, are large-scale solar installations where photovoltaic panels, also known as solar panels, are used to harvest the sun’s power. They are considered a reliable, renewable energy source.
The idea of space-based solar power plants, however, is not new. Earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) signed contracts for two parallel concept studies for commercial-scale space-based solar power plants, representing a crucial step in the agency’s new SOLARIS initiative – which involves maturing the feasibility of gathering solar energy from space for terrestrial clean energy needs.
According to the ESA website, the idea behind space-based solar power is to gather solar power where it is available continuously and in plentiful supply, up in Earth orbit, unperturbed by local weather or darkness, then beam it down wirelessly to Earth where it is needed. The concept complements rather than competes with terrestrial renewables, the website explains.