Swansea solar technology could power moon bases

Solar cell Image copyright Swansea University

If you saw something scooting across the sky on Christmas Eve, it might have been Santa, or it might have been a test satellite carrying Swansea University's revolutionary solar cell technology.

The cell generates electricity and is much smaller than conventional ones.

The technology could be used in future to power bases on the moon or Mars, experts have said.

They also believe it could be used as a renewable source of energy on Earth.

The device is currently flying 450 miles (724km) up, travelling at 17,000mph (27,359km), and circumnavigating the globe once every 90 minutes.

The solar cell is just 0.1mm thick and it is part of a tiny satellite measuring just 30cm by 10cm by 10cm.

It was developed by the UK Space Agency and the Algerian Space Agency.

'Significant cost-reductions'

Dr Dan Lamb, from Swansea University's College of Engineering's Solar Energy Research Centre, said the project was already offering a tantalising glimpse into the future.

He said that "with every kilogram put into orbit costing thousands of pounds, this new approach to space solar power could offer significant cost-reductions".

Over the course of the satellite's estimated year-long life, Dr Lamb and his team are hoping to measure how much electricity is being produced in the face of radiation in space and rapid temperature changes, and away from the protection offered to ground-based solar cells by Earth's electromagnetic field.

"There are pros and cons to having a space-based solar cell," he said.

"Outside of the Earth's atmosphere there's approximately 30% more sunlight, and therefore 30% more energy; as well as the fact that, in orbit, the cell is in darkness for far less time than it is on Earth.

"Weighed against that, what we're not yet 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."

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Media captionHow Swansea solar cell technology will work in space

If the experiment is successful, then Dr Lamb believes the technology could revolutionise space exploration.

"The main potential we're looking at is for use in electric propulsion of spacecraft, and to power future manned lunar or Mars bases."

But even more important could be the technology's potential back on Earth.

"Hypothetically, there's no reason why we couldn't use this technology to create orbiting solar arrays which beam electricity back down to Earth.

"It would be a green and completely renewable way of meeting the planet's power demands."

The test satellite launched from Southern India on 26 September, and has already begun feeding data back to scientists in Swansea and their colleagues at the University of Surrey and Qioptiq Space Technology Ltd with whom they have collaborated on the project.

By this time next year, they are hoping to have a better understanding of the technology's potential.

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