Holy Grail

Like an increasing number of people here on Earth, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) rely on solar energy to meet their electricity needs. They use advanced solar arrays to gather this power, and while the system they currently use is adequate, NASA is eager to find new ways to improve its efficiency.

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"We’ve been trying to get more efficiencies through solar arrays. That’s really the ‘holy grail,’" NASA's acting administrator Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. tells Futurism. "You see, solar arrays are not very efficient."

Typically, solar panels can only convert the Sun's rays to electricity with an efficiency of about 25 percent. However, all kinds of attempts to improve this figure are underway, ranging from Japanese firm Kaneko's record-breaking efforts earlier this year to a more recent research project out of Washington D.C. that pushed the upper boundary to 44.5 percent efficiency.

ROSA Rolls Out

NASA's primary concern is advancing the capabilities of the ISS, as well as other off-world craft that need electricity while navigating space on exploratory missions. However, as Lightfoot notes, the advances made by this kind of research could have major benefits for those of us back on Earth.

"We did a flexible solar array recently with the last SpaceX launch. You give that to the military or anyone who lives in the middle of nowhere, roll it out, and you got power in a place where you didn’t have power," he asserts.

Lightfoot is referring to the Roll Out Solar Array, better known as ROSA. The technology wraps a solar panel around a thin rod, forming a compact cylinder that's easily stowed for launch and transport. When it's time to deploy the panel, strain energy is used to unfurl it to full extension. The two-stage process only takes around 10 minutes.

ROSA at full extension, being held by a robotic arm. Image Credit: NASA

ROSA was designed to make solar energy available even in the difficult conditions experienced by space explorers. The fact that it's easy to transport and straightforward to deploy means it could have all kinds of applications on Earth, particularly in situations where hauling traditional solar panels around is not practical.

However, rolling out ROSA on existing satellites could offer up benefits to Earth dwellers, too. According to NASA, the technology's improvements to performance could help satellites provide better service for things like GPS, weather forecasting, and satellite radio and television broadcasts.

ROSA underwent a week-long trial in June, after which it was jettisoned following unsuccessful retraction attempts. Based on the results of the experiment, NASA still has some work to do, but the agency may well be on their way to reaching the "holy grail" of highly efficient solar arrays.

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