On 26 September 2016, a small satellite developed by the UK Space Agency and Algerian Space Agency, was launched into space from southern India. It has an estimated year-long life and is currently traveling at a height of 724 kilometres (450 miles) and at a speed of 27,359 kilometres per hour (17,000 miles per hour), meaning that it circumnavigates the globe once every ninety minutes. BBC News reported the event.
Part of the satellite is a tiny solar cell, measuring just 30cm by 10cm by 10cm, developed by Swansea University’s College of Engineering’s Solar Energy Research Centre. It is considered revolutionary because it generates electricity and is much smaller than conventional ones. Such technology could potentially be used in the future to power space bases on the Moon or Mars and send electricity back down to Earth.
Dr Dan Lamb, from the Energy Research Centre, is an expert closely involved with the pilot project. He says “The main potential we’re looking at is for use in electric propulsion of spacecraft, and to power future manned lunar on Mars bases.”
He notes that “Hypothetically, there’s no reason why we couldn’t use the technology to create orbiting solar rays which beam electricity back to Earth” adding that “It would be a green and completely renewable way of meeting the planet’s power demands.”
There are “pros and cons” to the project concedes Dr Lamb. Outside of the Earth’s atmosphere there is around 30 per cent more sunlight meaning that it could generate “30% more energy.” Because the cell is in space and constantly orbiting this results in it being in darkness for less time that it would be on Earth meaning that more energy can potentially be generated.
However, “Weighed against that, what we’re not sure of is how the complex solar materials will stand up to the sun’s radiation when it’s not being shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere.” Further testing and work is required and Dr Lamb and his research team will continue to constantly monitor the results and continue to learn from these.
Swansea University is collaborating with the University of Surrey and Qioptic Space Technology Ltd on the project. The research team are already receiving real-time feedback as they seek to measure how much electricity is generated in space while dealing with rapid temperature changes.
To watch the BBC video demonstrating how the solar cell technology works click here.