SolAero makes history with solar panel that powered first successful flight on Mars.

SolAero Technologies Corp. was a part of history on Monday. 

The Albuquerque-based solar cells and panels company led the charge in creating and manufacturing the solar panel that facilitated the first ever powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth, according to a news release.

Ingenuity – a 19.3-inch-tall, 4-pound helicopter that touched down on Mars in mid-February with the Perseverance rover – successfully took off and landed on the Red Planet at around 1:34 a.m. Monday, NASA said.

Ingenuity flew for 39.1 seconds and climbed 10 feet off Mars’ surface. NASA verified the flight was a success at 4:46 a.m. when the helicopter transmitted data to the Perseverance rover.

“SolAero is extremely proud to be a part of this history-making flight and supporting it with the highest performance solar panels available,” said Brad Clevenger, CEO of SolAero Technologies, in a prepared statement.

The solar panel created and developed by SolAero was years in the making, Maggie Smith, a company spokeswoman, said. She didn’t disclose the cost of the project.

Because Mars has only a third of Earth’s gravity and an even thinner atmosphere, SolAero’s solar panel was designed with those factors in mind.

The panel on Ingenuity is built with SolAero’s 33% efficient inverted metamorphic multijunction, or IMM, class of solar cells, which it says produce 10% or more power than other space solar cells. The cells are also 40% lighter. SolAero said “the combination of higher efficiency and significantly lower mass was a critical factor that was deemed mission enabling for Ingenuity’s successful flight.”

Navid Fatemi, vice president of SolAero, said the history made on Monday shows the company’s position in helping push the boundaries of space exploration. 

“Today’s historical flight solidifies SolAero’s position as a key supplier for space grade solar panels for NASA Exploration Missions” Fatemi said in a prepared statement to Business First. “The IMM ultra-efficiency solar cells that are powering the Mars Helicopter are a unique technology space qualified and in volume production only at SolAero.”

The flight itself was autonomous – meaning that it was “piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL” and not by a joystick, according to NASA.

With the success of the first flight, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory team over the next three sols (three days on Mars) will analyze the data from Ingenuity’s first flight and create a plan for a second flight in the coming days.

Solar panels from SolAero were also used on NASA’s InSight Mars Lander in November 2018, according to previous Business First reporting. The company has contracted with NASA on other projects, too, including the Mars 2020 Cruise Stage, the Parker Solar Probe to the sun, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, among others.

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SolAero has been in operation since 1998 and is headquartered in Albuquerque, according to its website.