For spacecraft, power is everything. Without electrical power, satellites and robotic probes might as well be chunks of cold rock tumbling through space. Hundreds to millions of miles from the nearest power outlet, these spacecraft must somehow eke enough power from ambient sunlight to stay alive.
That's no problem for large satellites that can carry immense solar panels and heavy batteries. But in recent years, NASA has been developing technologies for much smaller microsatellites, which are lighter and far less expensive to launch. Often less than 10 feet across, these small spacecraft have little room to spare for solar panels or batteries, yet must still somehow power their onboard computers, scientific instruments, and navigation and communication systems.
Space Technology 5 was a mission that proved, among other technologies, new concepts of power generation and storage for spacecraft.
“We tested high efficiency solar cells on ST-5 that produce almost 60 percent more power than typical solar cells. We also tested batteries that hold three times the energy of standard spacecraft batteries of the same size,” says Christopher Stevens, manager of NASA's New Millennium Program. This program flight tests cutting-edge spacecraft technologies so that they can be used safely on mission-critical satellites and probes.
“This more efficient power supply allows you to build a science-grade spacecraft on a miniature scale,” Stevens says.
Solar cells typically used on satellites can convert only about 18 percent of the available energy in sunlight into electrical current. ST-5 tested experimental cells that capture up to 29 percent of this solar energy. These new solar cells, developed in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio, performed flawlessly on ST-5, and they've already been swooped up and used on NASA's svelte MESSENGER probe, which will make a flyby of Mercury later this year.
Like modern laptop batteries, the high-capacity batteries on ST-5 use lithium-ion technology. As a string of exploding laptop batteries in recent years shows, fire safety can be an issue with this battery type.
“The challenge was to take these batteries and put in a power management circuit that protects against internal overcharge,” Stevens explains. So NASA contracted with ABSL Power Solutions to develop spacecraft batteries with design control circuits to prevent power spikes that can lead to fires. “It worked like a charm.”
Now that ST-5 has demonstrated the safety of this battery design, it is flying on NASA's THEMIS mission (for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) and is slated to fly aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Solar Dynamics Observatory, both of which are scheduled to launch later this year.
Thanks to ST-5, a little sunlight can go a really long way.
Find out about other advanced technologies validated in space and now being used on new missions of exploration at nmp.nasa.gov/TECHNOLOGY/scorecard. Kids can calculate out how old they would be before having to replace lithium-ion batteries in a handheld game at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/st5_bats.shtml.
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.