Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately describe Emcore’s role in the Maven mission.
Made in New Mexico.
That’s the stamp that should be on the solar cells powering the spacecraft for NASA’s latest mission to Mars, which entered orbit around the red planet Sunday.
Albuquerque’s Emcore Corp. designed the photovoltaics for the two wing-shaped solar arrays that have powered the Maven explorer since it launched from Earth last November, traveling 442 million miles to reach the planet. The arrays will continue to power the craft as it orbits Mars to study the planet’s upper atmosphere.
Data collected by the Maven explorer – short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution – could help scientists understand how Mars morphed from warm and wet during its first billion years to cold and dry today.
“It’s been truly fulfilling to participate in such an important mission contributing to interplanetary research and exploration,” said Rich Lutz, program manager for the 15-member team that built the cells.
Emcore President and CEO Hong Hou said New Mexicans in general can share in the pride of accomplishment, because it reflects the state’s unique talents and ongoing impact on space-age technology.
“Albuquerque is still a somewhat small place, but it’s absolutely on the road map in the solar space industry,” Hou said. “That’s an exciting thing for our community.”
Powering the Maven, which weighs 5,400 pounds and is as long as a school bus, is no small feat. The solar cells must be extremely radiation hardy and capable of performing in severe temperatures.
“To get to Mars, the craft passes through various environments with extreme temperature swings and high energy-particle radiation,” Hou said. “It’s also continuously moving farther away from the sun during the trip, so the solar cells must be tailor-made to keep producing enough power.”
Lockheed Martin Corp., which built the Maven for NASA, chose Emcore for the craft’s PV power given the company’s advanced solar space technology.
Emcore makes high-performance “triple-junction” solar cells, originally developed at Sandia National Laboratories, that convert much more sunlight to electricity than standard silicon cells. In addition, they’re made of hardy semi-conductor materials and other elements that provide greater resistance to radiation than silicon.
“They can sustain much higher particle bombardment without losing too much power,” Hou said. “They’re very robust.”
Emcore’s cells have been used to power scores of satellites, plus a number of prior interplanetary spacecraft that went to Mars, Mercury, the sun and the moon.
Emcore cells powered the mothership that took the rover named Curiosity to Mars, where the rover is still operating.
Given the company’s stellar reputation in the solar space industry, the New York-based private equity firm Veritas Capital agreed this month to acquire Emcore’s Albuquerque operations for $150 million.
That’s good news for New Mexico, because the new owners are expected to continue the growth of the firm at Sandia Science and Technology Park in the Southeast Heights.
More interplanetary missions are in the works. The company is now designing solar cells for the InSight Mars lander, another NASA mission scheduled for launch in March 2016.