A team, from University of Surrey and University of Swansea, followed a satellite in orbit for six years in order to observe how the panels generated power, weathered solar radiation and tolerated space’s harsh conditions.
The cells were made of thin-film cadmium telluride, which acts as a semiconducting material, laid on ultra-thin glass. The new solar technology allows for larger, lightweight panels which generate more power and are relatively low-cost.
The team gathered its evidence over 30,000 orbits, a research paper explained. Although the cells’ power output deteriorated over time, the researchers believe their findings prove that solar power satellites work and could be commercially viable.
“We are very pleased that a mission designed to last one year is still working after six,” said Professor Craig Underwood, Emeritus Professor of Spacecraft Engineering, at the University of Surrey.
“These detailed data show the panels have resisted radiation and their thin-film structure has not deteriorated in the harsh thermal and vacuum conditions of space.”
The researchers said that more development is needed but “this flight has proven the basic soundness of the technology for use in space”.
Every hour more energy from the sun reaches Earth than humans use in a year and roughly a third is reflected back into space, the US Energy Department says.
Since there are no clouds, atmosphere or night in space, satellite-based solar panels could be far more effective at capturing and transmitting energy than renewable infrastructure on Earth.