ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At least 80 new high-tech solar jobs are coming to Albuquerque under a SolAero Technologies Corp. plan to invest $10 million in a first-of-its-kind, 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for solar cells used in spacecraft.
The new facility, to be built at the Sandia Science and Technology Park where SolAero is located, will house an end-to-end production line to build fully integrated solar cells and panels for satellites. It will be the first such manufacturing operation to combine all processes from start to finish in a single facility, said SolAero CEO Brad Clevenger.
It’s inspired by SolAero’s new contract with Airbus OneWeb Satellites, which plans to launch a constellation of 900 low-earth-orbiting satellites to extend high-speed Internet to underserved communities on a global scale. That $3 billion project is the biggest such endeavor worldwide to date, and one that will now be powered by a homegrown Albuquerque company.
“Traditionally, our customers buy or build their own panels themselves, and we populate them with our solar cells and then often subcontract with another company to fully integrate the panels before putting them on satellites,” Clevenger told the Journal. “Traditionally, up to three players are involved. We’ll be the first that I know of to bring all these capabilities together in one production line.”
The company already has the needed manufacturing infrastructure.
SolAero formed in 2014 after buying Emcore Corp.’s solar space division, which made robust solar cells for spacecraft. The firm remains headquartered here with 250 employees, but it has since acquired two California firms that make carbon-fiber-composite structures and assemblies that get integrated into satellites.
“We’ll combine our carbon-fiber capabilities in California with our solar cell operations here and structure it all into one production line,” he said. “We’ll build the panels and the solar cells here and combine them with all the circuitry and wiring for a finished product.”
By streamlining operations under one roof, SolAero wants to make products faster and cheaper without compromising quality. That’s critical for OneWeb to make its satellite constellation affordable. All project partners, including global giant Airbus Defense and Space Division, are working toward those goals.
OneWeb CEO Brian Holz said SolAero is up to the job.
“Their experience, high-volume production capability and proven track record made SolAero the right partner for us,” Holz said in a statement.
OneWeb expects to begin launching constellation satellites next year. The company is backed by global industry players, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, the wireless tech giant Qualcomm, and SoftBank Group Corp., which announced a $1 billion investment in OneWeb last December.
Each satellite, to be built by Airbus, will weigh about 330 pounds and fly in orbits about 745 miles above earth. The satellites themselves will be launched in groups by different companies around the globe, including Virgin Galactic on its forthcoming LauncherOne rocket and Europe’s Arianespace consortium on Russian-built Soyuz rockets.
Apart from fulfilling the OneWeb contract, SolAero’s investment will also strengthen its position in the space-based solar industry overall, Clevenger said.
“We’ll put the lessons we learn back into the broader satellite industry to make our customers more competitive,” he said.
SolAero won’t build a new building, but rather overhaul the 100,000 square feet it now has in two facilities at the Sandia Science and Technology Park. It expects to hire at least 80 of the 100 new employees created by the project here in Albuquerque.
It’s also discussing new subcontract partnerships with local companies to eventually replace the out-of-state contractors.