News | Dec. 13, 2010

Process Maturation Helps Solar Cells Shine

By Heyward Burnette Materials and Manufacturing

By working to mature practices in place for manufacturing high-efficiency, multijunction space solar cells, Air Force Research Laboratory's Manufacturing Technology Division enabled key improvements in the critical performance, mass, and volume of warfighter-specific satellite payloads. Leveraging Space and Missile Systems Center and in-house expertise, the ManTech-driven process enhancement will ultimately accelerate the insertion opportunities and increase the manufacturing readiness (i.e., qualification) of the advanced solar cell technology.

To transition the development of 30% high-efficiency solar cells, ManTech is focused on manufacturing process improvement areas that would have high payoff for the Air Force by ensuring the strict manufacturing requirements needed for successful operation in a space environment. ManTech expects that advances in this high-risk technology area will offer major rewards for the AF and Department of Defense by delivering next-generation power capability and will bolster the US industrial base for space technology.

Shrinking budgets and increasing commercial competition in the space industry have forced spacecraft designers to look for low-cost, lightweight, and low-volume spacecraft subsystems with no functional sacrifice. The availability of increased-efficiency solar cells means that satellite manufacturers can shrink the size and mass of solar arrays, reducing total system mass, volume, and cost. This will significantly reduce solar array cost per watt, as well as reduce array mass by 15%-17% based on efficiency increases alone. The development and acquisition of space satellites is subject to international competition and other pressures in the commercial space markets. Currently, two major domestic suppliers meet existing solar cell requirements. The loss of one of these suppliers would diminish price competitiveness, and this critical technology development activity would suffer significantly. In order to preserve market dominance and technical superiority, the AFRL/SMC partnership is encouraging greater diligence in the acquisition process, concentrating on best-value practices and on enhancing and improving current solar cell capabilities. Each organization has a vested interest in seeing domestic capabilities improved, which will ultimately facilitate increased capabilities for US satellites.