Albuquerque-based mPower Technologies’ new DragonSCALES solar-cell material will power up a small satellite scheduled for launch into low-Earth orbit in December.
It’s the first in-space test for mPower’s technology, which weaves tiny solar cells about the width of a human hair into a flexible, lightweight mesh that could substantially lower the costs for powering up spacecraft. The company is partnering with Sparkwing – a division of the global, space-focused solar technology firm Airbus Defense and Space Netherlands B.V. – to test and evaluate DragonSCALES for possible integration into future Sparkwing solar arrays.
mPower has integrated its DragonSCALES solar technology into a Sparkwing array attached to a satellite that the California-based space company Momentus will shoot into low-Earth orbit before year-end, said mPower president and CEO Kevin Hell.
“This is our first opportunity to fly in space,” Hell told the Journal. “We’ve done all testing and evaluation until now on the ground, but now we’ll demonstrate DragonSCALES’ advantages directly in orbit.”
Sparkwing did its own ground-based testing of DragonSCALES’ high-efficiency generating capability and its stability when integrated into a solar array made for space. But it needs to evaluate actual performance in orbit before deciding on whether to incorporate the technology into next-generation solar arrays, said Marloes van Put, project development manager in charge of Sparkwing.
“The solar panel on the satellite is made entirely with DragonSCALES,” van Put said. “We’ll monitor its performance to gather in-orbit data to compare with our ground-based data.”
The Netherlands-based company has placed solar arrays on satellites for decades, but space companies are now searching for lower-cost systems to power up the thousands of small satellites planned for launch into low-Earth orbit over the next decade. That market is exploding, thanks to huge cost-saving advances in space technology, plus the immense hunger for satellite-based broadband connectivity across the globe.
But solar arrays made for space remain expensive, encouraging the Netherlands-based company and many others to seek new alternatives to lower those costs.
“Most space companies are now focused on price and fast lead times,” van Put said. “New players in the satellite market want to place their product into low-Earth orbit fast and cheap.”
Sparkwing is implementing a new strategy to rapidly produce lower-cost arrays. It’s establishing a standardized, “catalog-like” approach for space companies, whereby customers choose a model they want from Sparkwing’s inventory and the company rapidly assembles it, van Put said.
“We’ll offer a catalog of solar panels,” she said. “Today, most companies making solar arrays get specific requests for unique, one-off designs. We’re going to use an off-the-shelf strategy that allows customers to sift through the data, select the product they want, and we deliver it.”
The company has been testing and evaluating about a half-dozen different solar-cell technologies to use in its next-generation arrays. But mPower’s DragonSCALES is the first one it’s actually testing in orbit.
“This is one technology that’s really different from what we’ve seen in the past, and mPower has a very capable team in place,” van Put said.
mPower launched in Albuquerque in 2015 with technology originally developed at Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia’s Materials, Devices and Energy Technologies group used micro design and micro fabrication techniques to create the tiny solar cells that mPower now weaves into lightweight, bendable sheets.
The interconnected cells are made of highly efficient silicon that can be meshed into any shape or form, providing unprecedented adaptability for a wide variety of applications. They’re particularly well-suited for aerospace, where they could replace rigid, glass-enclosed solar arrays that often include expensive Gallium Arsenide ingredients.
mPower says DragonSCALES offer reduced weight and volume while also providing resilience and extreme reliability, dramatically lowering costs. In addition, they can be mass manufactured with standard semiconductor and solar-cell micro fabrication tools and technologies, allowing the company to easily adapt and scale up production as needed.
The company employs 14 people at the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque, and at business administration offices in San Diego. It’s focusing first on the space market, given the advantages offered by its technology and the rapidly-growing demand for solar innovation for low-Earth-orbit spacecraft.
“We’re getting a lot of traction in the space market overall,” Hell said. “We’re being considered for different opportunities. … I believe we’re very well-positioned for next-generation satellites.”
The company hopes the upcoming, in-orbit demonstration will encourage Sparkwing to include DragonSCALES in its catalog of solar technology.
“We want to become one of their off-the-shelf options,” Hell said. “We could be a great addition to their product lines.”
Meanwhile, the company is working to build terrestrial markets as well, boosted by a $1.1 million small business research grant the U.S. Army awarded in late 2019 to further develop and test its solar technology for portable power in remote locations. That could potentially open military markets for the technology, and commercial sales for outdoor applications.
“We’ve built and delivered the first arrays for testing and evaluation under that program,” said mPower Vice President and General Manager Jason Wilson. “We’re seeing good traction in potential terrestrial markets.”
The company has to date received $4.35 million in private funding from angel investors, and from three venture firms, including Sun Mountain Capital and Cottonwood Technology Fund in Santa Fe, and NMA Ventures in Albuquerque.
Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.