What are the Energy Sources of Spacecraft?
About 6 months after the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite, which is considered the beginning of the Space Age, on March 17, 1958, Vanguard 1 was launched into space. Vanguard 1, the 4th artificial satellite sent by mankind to Earth orbit, has a different technology than the satellites placed in Earth orbit before it. It was the first satellite in which the electrical energy required for the satellite was obtained with the solar panels placed on it. In this sense, Vanguard 1 is one of the cornerstones of the Space Age.
Sputnik 1, a Soviet production sent before it, orbited for about 20 days, collecting data on the atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals in the atmosphere, but at the end of 20 days, communication was cut off because its batteries were exhausted. However, communication with Vanguard 1, which was sent by mounting solar panels, was maintained until 1964 thanks to the panels.
What is the Energy Source of Spacecraft?
The main task of mitochondria in multicellular organisms is to meet their energy needs. Space vehicles, satellites, telescopes, in short, almost everything man-made in space needs energy just like living things. This energy is necessary to communicate with the Earth, to move, to run the necessary equipment for research or to sustain the lives of the astronauts in it. Various methods are used to meet this energy. Fuel cells, radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) and internal energy sources are used.
In addition to these, photovoltaic solar panel systems are used, which benefit from the sun as an external energy source. Photovoltaic system (PV): Solar cells on which photons fall, directly converts solar energy into DC electrical energy with the help of semiconductors. Solar panels used in satellites and spacecraft work with this method. The energy produced by the systems in which solar energy is used varies depending on the angle at which the solar panels stand and the duration of the sun exposure. Therefore, the energy produced when they see the sun is stored in rechargeable batteries to be used during the period of darkness.
Fuel cells, which are preferred when space missions are limited to a few weeks, are formed by the chemical reaction of oxygen and hydrogen in fuel cells, and electricity, air and water are formed. All of these products are used in spacecraft. However, the non-renewable nature of this energy has reduced its use in recent years. RTG technology was used in the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the first man-made vehicle to enter the interstellar medium. This technology, suitable for very long missions, provides the necessary energy by directly converting the heat released from the angle into electrical energy during the radioactive decay of the plutonium-238 isotope. Apart from these, there is energy obtained externally by using solar energy.
Solar Panels in Space
Upon realizing that the working time would be increased to years by placing solar panels on the satellites, solar panels were installed on almost all vehicles sent into space. The Vanguard 1, the first representative of this technology, had a diameter of about 16 cm and a mass of around 1.5 kg. The electrical energy required for its operation was provided by 6 solar panels placed on it. Each solar panel has 8 silicon solar cells, 2 x 0.5 cm in size, working with 8% efficiency.
In addition, 160 micrometer quartz glass is placed in order to protect it in the space environment. Solar panels are widely used in many devices, including the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station (ISS), which were sent after Vanguard 1, are currently in space, are at the heart of space studies, and are one of the most important vehicles sent by human beings to explore the space full of these unknowns.
For example, the solar panels on the ISS have 262,400 solar cells operating at 14.2% efficiency. These solar panels can produce up to 120 kilowatts of power. Another very important exploration instrument, the Hubble Space Telescope, also has solar panels. In addition, occasional malfunctions in solar panels on the ISS and Hubble are repaired or replaced by astronauts sent from Earth. In this respect, solar panels have a great advantage.
If you’ve seen the movie The Martian, you’ve probably encountered solar panels in many scenes. The energy needed by the campus established on Mars or the rover used by our hero waiting to be rescued was provided by solar panels. As seen in this movie, or as Elon Musk aims, even if our goal is to colonize Mars, settle there or interstellar travel, there is a fact that we know, solar panels will come with us wherever we go.