Alta Devices of Sunnyvale, CA, USA (a subsidiary of Hanergy Thin Film Power Group Ltd of Beijing, China since 2014) says that its solar cells have powered a CubeSat mission by Twiggs Space Lab LLC (TSL), NearSpace Launch Inc (NSL) and their launch logistics partner NanoRacks LLC. The Asgardia-1 satellite was based on NSL’s FastBus platform and powered by about 24W of Alta solar cells. Launched in November 2017 on an Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman) cargo resupply mission, the 2U-size FastBus was inserted into a 475km low-earth orbit in December 2017 via the NanoRacks External Cygnus Deployer. The 2U satellite carried a payload that included a solid-state memory experiment and particle detectors used to determine the actual effects of on-orbit radiation.
Picture: Asgardia-1 satellite
TSL, NSL and NanoRacks are at the forefront of small-satellite innovation and are pioneering new, disruptive models of satellites that are much smaller, simpler and more affordable. Their mission is to broaden access to space for educational as well as commercial participants. They selected Alta Devices solar technology due to its unique modular, lightweight and high-efficiency characteristics.
“Our goal is to inspire future generations of engineers and scientists through innovation in the field of space,” says TSL’s founder Bob Twiggs. “Alta Devices technology is easy to integrate, and its modular form factor is well suited to the standardized dimensions of CubeSats. Our team is excited about the potential to innovate and rapidly prototype using this technology,” he comments. “With the FastBus, we aim to provide a reliable, affordable and quick-turn CubeSat platform built on our heritage of communication and bus technologies,” says NearSpace Launch’s founder Dr Hank Voss.
“At Nanoracks, we’re focused on lowering the barriers of entry to space. We see adoption of innovative solar and bus technologies as another critical piece of the puzzle in making space exploration accessible to entrepreneurs, scientists, students, corporations and space researchers around the world,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “Any component that is more robust, withstands the launch loads and maintains a clean ride-share environment is going to make things easier for everyone on a practical and regulatory perspective,” he adds. “The Alta [glass-free] solar cells came through with flying colors on the Asgardia-1 satellites.”
CubeSats (satellites weighing less than 15kg) were originally developed for university students to participate in space research. The standard has now been adopted worldwide and has helped to ignite a small-satellite revolution. Typically placed into low-earth orbits, they often have standardized or off-the-shelf components and have facilitated more affordable and easier access to space. CubeSats are driving new industries via the explosion of big data accessible from space.
Until now, no commercial solar technologies could match the improvement in cost, weight and ease of use that other components of small-satellite technology have achieved: solar cells are traditionally expensive, fragile, rigid and difficult to encapsulate and robustly attach to spacecraft.
Alta Devices says that its solar cells overcome these challenges because they are flexible, easy to encapsulate and mount, and provide high power conversion efficiencies. For example, the cells can be mounted to low-mass deployable structures including coiled carbon fiber booms, flat-packed, polymer-based accordioned arrays, and even inflatable structures, allowing creative design approaches to maximizing onboard solar power. Alta Devices says that it is empowering autonomy, as its cells provide a new level of mechanical and design flexibility for the small-satellite industry.
“Innovation in solar is essential to the continued evolution of small-satellite technology,” comments CEO Jian Ding. “The industry has seen disruptive change in every technology area except in solar cells. Solar cells were expensive, challenging to integrate and hard to procure, until now,” he adds. “The success of the FastBus mission provides another data point validating our technology and further cements our commitment to our partners as they plan their upcoming launches.”
Alta Devices is exhibiting in booth 145 at the 32nd Annual Small Satellite Conference in Logan, UT (4-9 August). On display are Alta Devices’ solar technologies and TSL and NSL SmallSats. NanoRacks is in attendance at the Small Satellite Conference in the East Colony Room.