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The first instance of solar panels being used in space stems back to 1958, on the American satellite Vanguard 1. Since then, technological advancements have propelled us to a future where such space technologies are commonplace. How did we get here? Let’s explore the history of solar panel use in space.

In today’s modern world, it’s all too easy to lose sight of how things work, or where they even originated from. This phenomenon often referred to as “the black box” theory, is the notion that we as humans pay little mind, or aren’t able to know the inner workings of technologies we may interact with all the time, so long as they are convenient and accessible to us.

One such example could be drawn from satellite technology in space that grants us crucial amenities like GPS, television, and high-speed internet we are all so accustomed to. Yet how often do we stop and reflect on where these systems came from? Or how they even work? The core of this answer surprisingly lies in energy, and our solution for power in space.

Though it may seem like common knowledge, satellites and spacecraft aren’t just able to conveniently refuel at a petrol station, or plug into an outlet and charge up. Such technologies in space mainly rely on battery power, or renewable energy solutions such as solar panels and radioactive generators. Given that the sun is the most readily available source of infinite energy that we know in space, it comes as no surprise that solar power has played a pivotal role in our history of space exploration.

How do solar panels work?

Solar panels work due to a phenomenon called the photovoltaic effect. Simply put, this is the process by which light is absorbed by a semiconducting material (such as silicon), creating an electrical current.

To explain in more detail, this all takes place because of the quantum makeup of materials. All materials are composed of atoms, which in turn are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The electrons exist at varying energy levels, so when they absorb light, these electrons gain more energy and move up to higher levels, leaving a “gap” behind them. When electrons gain this extra energy, they effectively move through the conducting material, which creates an electric current.

Although the first man-made demonstration of this effect took place in 1839, it wasn’t until 1883 that we had the creation of the very first solar cell made of a semiconducting material called selenium. It is interesting to note that the first selenium solar cell had an energy efficiency of less than 1%, while solar panels today are nearing an efficiency of around 40%!

Almost 100 years after the first solar cell, it was discovered that silicon worked much better as a semiconducting material, which ultimately led to the first patented silicon solar cell in 1941. Today, larger panels are made by connecting these silicon solar cells in a grid to form what we know as the solar panel.

Solar energy and space

The ability to harness energy from the sun changed everything for the space race. Suddenly, the prospect of sending spacecraft and satellites into orbit with the potential of regenerating energy was within grasp.

The development of the first US spacecraft – The Vanguard I Satellite – in 1958, saw the utilisation of solar panels on a spacecraft for the first time. Featuring just six solar panels with an area of about five centimetres per panel, the cells were able to produce a single watt of energy and were only about 10% efficient. Although we no longer have communication with Vanguard I, it remains the oldest manmade object still in orbit.

Just ten years later in 1967, the very first crewed spacecraft powered by solar panels was launched into space. The Soyuz I became a prototype experiment that utilised an unfurling solar panel technology. Given that space exploration was still in its infantile stages, the program encountered many technical difficulties. This included a malfunction that prevented the unfurling of the solar panels, resulting in a power outage aboard the spacecraft. After thirteen orbits, it was decided to return the spacecraft to Earth, but sadly a parachute malfunction resulted in a crash landing that ultimately killed astronaut Vladimir Komarov. Following an eighteen-month delay and numerous redesigns, the Soyuz I today continues to serve as the main artery of travel to the International Space Station.

Paving the way for the International Space Station, was the pioneer Salyut I space station launched in 1971. The structure was powered by two double sets of solar panels and served as a pioneering example for the Mir Space Station and the International Space Station that followed. The International Space Station today features eight solar arrays with an area of 35 by 12 metres per array. Together, these arrays can generate up to 120 kilowatts of energy, capable of charging the space station batteries to stay operational when in darkness.

Solar energy in space today

Alongside countless satellites and spacecraft missions in orbit, humanity has seen the launch of several solar-powered space missions beyond the comfort of Earth’s grasp. Currently, as we speak, the spacecraft BepiColombo is en route to the planet Mercury. Launched in October 2018, the spacecraft features two colossal solar panels measuring 14 metres each and is expected to reach its destination sometime in 2025.

We have also seen space missions to Mars, Venus, the asteroid belt, and even as far as Jupiter. With such rapid advancements in space technology and renewable energy generation, who knows the limits of what we may learn about the universe we find ourselves in? Only time will tell. 

Solar panels and household energy

With such a focus on solar energy applications in space, one might forget the immediate positive impacts such developments have for us here on Earth, specifically in the context of a growing need for environmental consciousness. As the price of energy continues to globally skyrocket, solar energy has become a serious contender to help free households from the grip of energy insecurity.

Not only can solar panels generate energy for your home, even on gloomy days, but several places in the world now have schemes that allow you to profit from the energy you generate and don’t use! In the UK, a scheme called the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) allows homeowners to sell unused energy back to the national grid for an additional profit. Not to mention, energy from the sun is free and unlimited, making the potential to offset your initial investment very feasible.

For all your household solar energy questions, GreenMatch serves as a highly informational one-stop shop to put you on track with everything you need to know if considering solar energy for your home in the UK. In addition to providing a thorough breakdown of pros and cons, expected investments, and potential for support through government grants and schemes, GreenMatch is also able to connect you with local professional installers in your area for accurate quote prices. To learn more, make sure to check out solar panels on GreenMatch.

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