NASA gives contract to SolAero for Gateway project

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SolAero Technologies Corporation, a solar energy-focused provider and manufacturer have secured a contract from NASA, which employs them to provide future propulsion needed for the space agency’s Artemis mission in 2024.

SolAero is a provider of high-efficiency solar cells, solar panels and composite structural products for satellite and aerospace applications. According to the company, they “provide solar power solutions and precision aerospace structures to the global space markets, encompassing a wide array of applications including civil space exploration, science and earth observation, defense intelligence and communication, and commercial telecommunications industries.”

Particularly, for this NASA project, the solar energy company will mainly be working on providing power and solar propulsion mechanisms for Gateway—a lunar orbiter that NASA will be constructing, which will save as a middle point for astronauts who will visit the moon or further into deep space such as the moon. 

Under the terms of the contract, SolAero will design and manufacture Solar Power Modules (SPMs) that will supply nearly 70 kilowatts to the Gateway using its latest generation, quadruple-junction “Z4J” solar cells, which exhibit superior radiation hardness in the space environment and utilize automated assembly methods for high-volume production of satellite solar panels and modules. In other words, these SPMs are designed specifically for space applications.

In this sense, “junction” refers to the different materials used in a solar cell. The purpose of multiple materials is to squeeze more solar energy conversion action out of the same solar cell, so in turn, these solar-power providing structures can give off more energy. 

However, multiple junctions also typically make the cost for solar power more pricier, especially compared to typical roof solar panels on Earth, which uses silicon solar cells.

Essentially, the most efficient silicon-based rooftop solar panels on the market today claim an efficiency rating just over the 20% mark. SolAero’s Z4J solar cell weighs in at about 33%.

Nevertheless, with this decision, NASA is willing to spend more on investing to power future space explorations instruments and spacecraft. 

“SolAero has had the honor of participating in over 30 NASA missions in our 20-year history and we’re once again very proud to have the opportunity to support NASA on a trailblazing endeavor,” said Brad Clevenger, President, and CEO of SolAero.  “We’re also excited to continue working with our longtime partners at Maxar to bring our latest generation solar cell technology and advanced manufacturing capability to the Power and Propulsion Element.”

The SPMs will be designed and manufactured in SolAero’s state-of-the-art production facility in Albuquerque, NM.  

Additionally, SolAero will add its solar power modules to Gateway through a subcontract, which Colorado-based Maxar Technologies initially secured from NASA.

“In order to deliver revolutionary space infrastructure and Earth intelligence capabilities to our customers, Maxar carefully chooses strategic partners who embrace innovation, experience, and efficiency,” said Mike Gold, Maxar’s Vice President of Civil Space. “We’re delighted to add SolAero as a supplier on the Power and Propulsion Element spacecraft.”

Maxar is a partner and innovator in Earth Intelligence and Space Infrastructure by both government and commercial customers through delivering global broadband communications; and asset their customers in exploring and advancing the use of space. 

“Our unique approach combines decades of deep mission understanding and a proven commercial and defense foundation to deploy solutions and deliver insights with unrivaled speed, scale and cost-effectiveness.“

On the other hand, in a recent National Space Council meeting, it was discussed that NASA may have the possibility of looking at technology involving nuclear propulsion as to oppose with the traditional solar or even chemical propulsion systems. 

Particularly, it was discussed that nuclear propulsion has the potential to provide a more efficient means of space travel in terms of time a spacecraft will take to travel from point A to point B.

Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies and also a panelist during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council said that nuclear thermal propulsion will be efficient for both human and scientific missions and implored NASA to spend more time on it if it wishes to arrive at farther destinations in the Galaxy such as Mars.

“If we are to fulfill these objectives to establish a long-term presence on the moon and to send the first crewed mission to Mars, nuclear power is arguably the most important to enable these bold goals,” Geveden said.

Spacecraft powered by such engines could conceivably reach Mars in just three to four months instead of the estimated nine months with the traditional chemical propulsion engines.

The Virginia-based company supplies nuclear components and fuel to the government.

However, most of the potential of nuclear propulsion is barely only being discussed. So, it is likely that we won’t be seeing it used in any NASA missions in the near future.

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