ABQ Journal: SolAero makes its mark in space

Albuquerque-based SolAero Technologies Corp. is helping to push human spacecraft into some of the farthest reaches of our solar system.

The company’s robust solar cells, engineered to withstand some of the harshest conditions in space, have powered NASA missions to the moon, Mars and Mercury. Next year, its technology will help take NASA’s Parker Solar Probe on a first-ever voyage to the sun’s outer atmosphere.

And thanks to a new contract announced last week, SolAero’s photovoltaic panels will also help carry NASA’s Europa Clipper on its forthcoming journey to Jupiter’s Europa moon to study whether conditions there are suitable for life.

“We’re providing the power for a huge diversity of missions, from the super-hot and super-bright outer atmosphere of the sun to the super-dark and super-cold region of Jupiter’s Europa moon,” said SolAero CEO Brad Clevenger. “… We’ve supported more than 40 NASA missions to date. More than not, the missions people hear about on the news are powered by us.”

In addition, scores of satellites now orbiting Earth for everything from defense and telecommunications to science and Earth observation are also powered by SolAero. Its technology is attached to more than 185 satellites and interplanetary spacecraft.

That will grow to nearly 1,000 in the next few years, thanks to SolAero’s new contract with Airbus OneWeb Satellites, which is working on a $3 billion project to put a constellation of 900 satellites in space to extend high-speed internet to underserved communities worldwide. SolAero technology will power at least 700 of those satellites, the first of which are scheduled to launch next year.

To better manage SolAero’s contribution to the OneWeb project and the NASA space missions, the company announced early this year a $10 million investment in one its two facilities at the Sandia Science and Technology Park in Southeast Albuquerque. The company, which occupies a total of 100,000 square feet at the park, is converting one 40,000-square-foot area into an end-to-end manufacturing center for fully assembled solar panels for spacecraft, making it the first such operation in the industry to combine all processes from start to finish in a single facility.

That means designing and building in one location all the solar cells, composite structures and final panel assemblies that make a complete product ready for integration into spacecraft.

“We’re progressing well,” Clevenger said. “About 90 percent of the facility construction is now complete, and we’ve installed more than 70 percent of the equipment.”

The investment will add about 80 more employees to the company’s current, 250-person workforce in Albuquerque. The company has hired about 15 people so far, with the full workforce expected to be in place early next year.

“The new hires are training now to work in the new area,” Clevenger said. “Pilot production for the OneWeb project is scheduled to start next month. We’ll produce a small volume at first and then scale up.”

Until now, the company has managed three separate operations, including solar cell design and development in Albuquerque, plus two facilities that make carbon-fiber-composite structures and assemblies in California. By combining all that into a single manufacturing center here, the company hopes to streamline its operation to improve efficiency and its competitiveness in the market.

SolAero is already recognized as one of the world’s leading makers of PV for spacecraft, given the robust, triple-junction solar cells and assemblies it makes to offer long-lasting power and structural resilience for spacecraft even in the harshest conditions.

Unlike traditional silicon-based single-cell solar PV used in terrestrial applications, SolAero stacks three levels of solar PV on top of one another in each cell to capture more sunlight, increasing output. That allows spacecraft to generate power even in the darkest corners of space, such as around the Europa moon.

SolAero’s carbon-structures and assemblies, meanwhile, are designed to withstand intense radiation and extreme temperatures in space.

That robust design is critical for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The company just delivered the panels for that spacecraft last spring after six years of working on them.

“It’s awesome for us to have designed the solar panels to make the closest approach to the sun than any man-made object ever has before,” Clevenger said. “NASA is now working to integrate those panels into the spacecraft.”

Apart from its unique technology, the company has earned a stellar reputation for product reliability, and for delivering work on time, which is critical for space missions.

“We’ve had zero orbit failures in the history of the company,” Clevenger said.

SolAero formed in 2014, after the New York-based private equity firm Veritas Capital paid $150 million to buy out Emcore Corp.’s solar space division, which that company launched in Albuquerque in 1998. SolAero reported $71 million in revenue in 2016.