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Air Force Lab solar array earns accolades

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AFRL scientist Paul Hausgen demonstrates deploying the composite Roll-Out Solar Array slit-tube boom. The booms do not require external power, but deploy under their own stored energy. (ANITA COLLINS/AFRL)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base is earning national accolades for a new light-weight, flexible solar array that it built to power satellites and other spacecraft.

The Roll-Out Solar Array, or ROSA technology, uses flexible, advanced solar cell materials that make it far more compact and lighter than traditional solar arrays, reducing costs for launching and operating spacecraft, said John Merrill, program manager for Advanced Space Power at AFRL in Albuquerque. The system, which will be deployed on the International Space Station next year for further testing in orbit, caught the attention of the Federal Laboratory Consortium, which selected the AFRL in February for a 2016 Excellence in Technology Transfer Award.

The award reflects AFRL efforts to work with private sector partners in creating ROSA, which could be deployed in the commercial sector even before it gets placed on Air Force systems, Merrill said.

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Two companies, LoadPath LLC in Albuquerque and Deployable Space Systems in California, worked with the AFRL to advance the technology and get it to market. SolAero Technologies — the company that bought Emcore Corp.’s solar space division last year and is now housed at the Sandia Science and Technology Park — helped AFRL develop the advanced solar cell material.

If the system were deployed on all spacecraft, it could save the U.S. Air Force’s communications and navigation programs up to $1.4 billion, Merrill said.

“Today we use thick composite panels that fold out and don’t stow well on spacecraft,” Merrill said. “The ROSA technology uses new, advanced structures and solar cells that make the whole system much more efficient.”

Thanks to its flexibility, the system can be rolled up into a compact tube that takes up a fraction of the space occupied by rigid traditional systems.

“It’s modular with much fewer parts,” Merrill said. “There are no motors to fold it out once in space, and there are fewer hinges. That makes it much less costly.”

The flexible solar sheet is also lined with a composite tube material that stretches the array out on the spacecraft. That material is rolled up with the array, and it springs out into a straight arm once in space.

“When you release it, it pops or snaps out into a straight, stiff position,” Merrill said.

Once stretched out, the tube material is very firm, making the craft more stable.

ROSA is one of many new components and systems developed at the AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate in Albuquerque, said Matthew Fetrow, lead for technology engagement at AFRL in New Mexico.

Among other systems, AFRL recently built a new inspection satellite, now in orbit, to survey conditions around spacecraft, providing ground control with more situational awareness. It also created an information gathering system to track environmental changes around orbiting craft and analyze their potential impact on operations.

The lab works with private contractors in all phases of its projects, providing an efficient path for technology commercialization, Fetrow said.

“That’s deliberate,” he said. “We want the folks who work with us on projects to take our technology and deploy it.”

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