Albuquerque-based SolAero Technologies Corp. has won its first major contract for a new solar cell to provide more power with less weight for spacecraft.
The technology, in development over 10 years, will be deployed on multiple satellites being built by SSL in Palo Alto, Calif. The 60-year-old company, owned by Maxar Technologies, has built more geostationary communications satellites in orbit than any other firm worldwide. Those spacecraft, which operate about 22,000 miles above earth, supply telecommunications signals for everything from direct-to-home television and broadband Internet to mobile communications.
But like most space companies, SSL is moving rapidly into the low-earth-orbit arena less than 1,000 miles up to supply faster communications at much lower cost. SolAero’s new Inverted Metamorphic, or IMM, solar cells will help boost those efforts, said SolAero President and CEO Brad Clevenger.
“It was a long process to get these solar cells to their current level of performance,” Clevenger said. “We usually roll out new technology every 18 to 24 months, but this took a decade, and some doubted it would ever come to market. We’ve demonstrated it now on multiple small satellites, which allowed us to win this first major position for IMM in the market with SSL.”
IMM is made with thin film about one-fifth the thickness of a human hair, making it super lightweight and super flexible, Clevenger said.
It’s also a five-junction device, providing more power than today’s triple-junction solar cells, which stack three levels of photovoltaics on top of one another to capture more sunlight.
“It’s a pretty significant advance from three junctions, allowing it to capture more of the sun’s spectrum to produce more power,” Clevenger said. “Overall, IMM is 12 percent more efficient and 40 percent lighter than triple-junction cells.”
SolAero, which launched in 1998, has supplied solar cells for SSL’s geostationary satellites for 20 years. But the latest contract marks a new milestone as SSL moves into low-earth-orbit technology. The company did not disclose the contract value.
“SolAero is a long term and reliable partner to SSL and we are very pleased to incorporate its new IMM technology into our production spacecraft,” SSL Chief Operating Officer Paul Estey said in a prepared statement. “After many years of development we are pleased that it has become a cost effective solution for our next-generation satellite systems.”
SolAero is already one of the world’s premier suppliers of solar cells for spacecraft. It’s now producing solar panels for Airbus OneWeb Satellites, the largest low-earth-orbit constellation to date with 900 satellites scheduled for launch.
SolAero recently completed a $10 million upgrade to its facility at the Sandia Science and Technology Park where it now employs 320 people, up from 250 in early 2017.