NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is developing a lightweight space-based solar power array with a high power-to-stowed-volume and weight ratio. The system provides power to small satellites and CubeSats that are power starved, operating on extremely limited power because of the size restrictions for housing onboard power sources. The beauty of NASA’s new solar unit is in its simplicity and packaged power density. Small satellites cannot take advantage of deployable high-efficiency solar cell arrays due to their complexity and mechanical needs; the weight and volume requirements exceed what is available in small satellites and CubeSats. The new system, for example, is compact enough to provide a 3U CubeSat with ~200 Watts, or a 6U with 500 Watts of power. NASA is developing the technology and is looking for partners to license and commercialize it.
This novel solar cell array includes a thin and flexible photovoltaic cell applied to an inflatable structure to create a high surface area array for collecting solar energy in a lightweight, simple, and deployable structure. The inflatable array, with its high functional surface area, eliminates the need and the mechanisms required to point the system toward the Sun. The power density achievable in these small arrays is similar to that of the conventional high-power deployable/pointable arrays used on large satellites or space vehicles.
Although inflatable solar arrays have been previously considered by others, they involved the use of traditional rigid solar cells. The innovators are currently working with thin film photovoltaics from various suppliers so the innovation is not limited to any particular solar cell technology. NASA has built prototypes and tested functionality before and after inflation. Deployment does not damage the cell performance.
Applications include power for CubeSats, small satellites, and solar electric vehicles; portable and field-deployable power systems for the military; and power for emergency response operations.