ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL — SolAero Technologies Corp. will begin producing solar panels for the world’s largest low-earth-orbit satellite constellation next month at the company’s newly-refurbished Albuquerque factory.
SolAero invested $10 million to convert about 40 percent of its 100,000-square-foot facility at the Sandia Science and Technology Park into a one-stop-shop for making fully-assembled solar panels for spacecraft, making it the first company to combine all solar cell, composite structure and final panel assembly into one continuous factory process at a single location.
Impetus for the factory upgrade came from a contract signed last year with Airbus OneWeb Satellites, which plans to launch 900 satellites into low-earth orbit over the next two years, making it the largest such satellite constellation to date. SolAero will provide solar panels for 700 of those satellites, with production slated to begin in May, said SolAero President and CEO Brad Clevenger.
“We’ll ramp up slowly over the summer,” Clevenger told the Economic Forum on Wednesday. “By September, we’ll be manufacturing the equivalent of two satellites (of solar panels) per day.”
The company ramped up its Albuquerque workforce from about 250 people early last year to 310 to prepare for its small-sat solar-panel production, Celevenger said.
The factory upgrade and workforce build-out reflects a fundamental change in business focus for SolAero, which formed in 2014 after buying Emcore Corp.’s solar space division. SolAero continues to make robust solar cells for all types of spacecraft, including the geostationary satellites that orbit 22,000 miles above earth and supply most global telecommunications signals today.
But the industry is moving rapidly toward low-earth-orbit satellite constellations, which hover at less than 1,000 miles up and can supply much faster communications across the globe at a fraction of the cost. That’s critical for today’s massive data communications needs, and OneWeb is just the first of many planned projects.
“Today, OneWeb is the largest satellite project in the world, but in six months it will only be the fifth largest,” Clevenger said. “There are 10 other companies now with constellation aspirations.”
SolAero is now set to dominate that emerging market, which attracted about $10 billion in global investment over the past five years.
SolAero’s new, semi-automated production facility reduced its solar panel production time cycle by 80 percent, preparing it for mass manufacturing on future projects.
“It will be a high-volume business, so we’re pushing efficiencies even more,” Clevenger said.
The company continues to make solar arrays for other spacecraft, supplying power for 40 of NASA’s last 41 missions. It’s also expanded into solar panels for unmanned aircraft.
It reached $100 million in revenue in 2017, up from $71 million in 2016.