How is NASA Driving Solar Technology into the Future?


Solar technology has been a hot topic for decades, and as scientists are monitoring climate change more closely than ever before, initiatives are picking up speed to come up with completely sustainable and reliable ways to integrate solar technology into much of the world’s most powerful industries. Unsurprisingly, the leader in solar technology innovations is NASA, who simply relies on it to carry out many of their most significant operations.

NASA’s emphasis on solar technology is nothing new, but as engineers have developed highly advanced systems in recent years, we’re seeing a golden age of solar power thanks to many of these innovations.

Solar Technology in the 21st Century

Solar energy is nothing new – it’s been available to us for as long as the Earth has existed. But, harnessing that energy, especially in a way that is completely dependable and resilient, has been a struggle. In the 21st century, thanks to all of the technology now at our disposal, we are able to harness it in ways that show its promise pertaining to the future of life on Earth.

Solar energy is harnessed using various means, but all of it relies on the same premise: converting the energy of sunlight into powerful electricity. The most common solar power systems rely on mirrors and lenses to focus larger sunlight areas into concentrated, narrow beams which allow energy to be condensed and focused.

It’s safe to say that solar technology wouldn’t be where it is today if not for NASA. And, NASA’s innovations pertaining to solar energy have ramped up exponentially in recent years, primarily in an effort to contribute to the worldwide initiative to address the implications of climate change, specifically related to our less sustainable power sources utilized by big industries.

High-Efficiency Solar Cell

High-efficiency solar cell technology is one of the primary solar technologies from NASA. NASA’s Glenn Research Center has overseen this innovation, which relies on a high-efficiency multi-junction solar cell relying on a very thin layer of selenium to bond solar wafers. Selenium is the only practical material that doesn’t interfere with the transfer of photons, so that light can effectively pass through without any obstacle. This allows multi-junction solar cell technology to be possible by offering efficiency that has the added bonus of being highly cost-effective. This technology was developed for space, but on Earth, it can offer unparalleled efficiency to the integration of solar technology into cars and other vehicles, power plants, grid systems and roofing.

Solar Arrays Integrated into the International Space Station

The International Space Station is absolutely integral to space travel on a worldwide scale and sees numerous crucial operations within its walls. That being said, it relies enormously on solar power, as without it, it would be completely nonoperational. This created a strong initiative to develop extremely powerful and reliable solar power to ensure that operations are able to be sustained. The result is the use of solar arrays, which were initially developed in 2000, and have been upgraded and refined ever since.

These solar arrays directly take in the energy of the sun to provide consistent power to the ISS, in a way that’s not going to falter when important operations are taking place. The stunning efficiency of this technology understandably has major implications for life on Earth. Because of the power required to operate high-tech and large instruments at the ISS, this solar array technology is clearly capable of providing power to similar operations on ground. These solar arrays are massive in size, as they need to be in order to soak in enough of the sun’s energy, meaning that they can be applied to large power plants and advanced power grid networks in the future.

Brand New Solar Sail Technology

Solar sail technology is not new itself, but NASA has developed a more advanced version of it that will be tested in 2022. Solar sails work very similarly to the sails of a ship that acted as the first means for powering ships, harnessing the energy of the wind to get from one point to another. Of course, solar sails harness the energy of the sun rather than the wind, and rely on individual photons, based on the fact that photons have no mass of their own, yet provide momentum when they make direct contact with other objects, thus pushing vehicles along. When photons essentially bounce off of spacecraft, they push it forward. Solar sails take advantage of this law of physics by implementing large, flat surfaces in front of spacecraft that act as mirrors for photons. One may be surprised by the momentum that this system can create, offering stunning speeds. You can visit our NASA Shop to learn more about it. 

While solar sail technology only exists currently to move large spacecraft, its technology may be adjusted in a way that can be useful on Earth. It may be able to act as power that transports vehicles including large aircraft, although the technology will understandably need to be modified a great deal, both because of the way in which aircraft is designed and because of its gravitational influence which is completely different outside of Earth.

Our Final Thoughts

Solar technology is advancing like never before, and we have NASA to thank. Underway is a plethora of other solar energy efforts that have the strong potential to change the way in which our world is powered on a day-to-day basis, from the devices that we use to the way in which major industries operate.


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