NASA’s Juno probe reached a major milestone Aug. 27 by completing its first orbit of Jupiter. There was cheering and congratulations all around at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which leads the Juno mission.
It was also be a proud day for Spectrolab, a Boeing-owned subsidiary located just down the road from JPL. Spectrolab supplied the solar panels that power Juno. It was another historic first for a company that has seen its share of them. Never before had solar cells been used to power a probe that far out into space.
“It has always been my dream that we can do some distant missions with solar,” said Azam Arastu, Spectrolab’s vice president of photovoltaic products and business development. “Five, ten years ago if we had said to anyone that we could go to [destinations] like Jupiter or even Saturn now with solar, we would have laughed outside the room. But, it’s possible now.
“I think the mission with Juno has [shown] ourselves now that we can even dream of going to Saturn, which is twice as far away as Jupiter,” he added. “So, in the next 60 years, I hope to see spacecraft from Spectrolab going as far away as Titan and the moons of Saturn.”
The success of Juno, which entered orbit July 4, caps off a successful summer for Spectrolab. In July, the 250-person company celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding by the late Alfred Mann in 1956. Spectrolab celebrated its birthday at an event in late July at its Sylmar, California, headquarters.
“The things that are done here in this facility for the last 60 years have been amazing,” Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, told Spectrolab employees. “They’ve been an incredible impact on the business I lead, and on the technology for human civilization. So, you all ought to be very, very proud of that.”
Spectrolab has an impressive list of space firsts. In 1958, the company’s solar cells were on board Pioneer 1, the first spacecraft launched by the recently created NASA. Eleven years later, solar arrays powered instruments carried to the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Spectrolab also supplies solar arrays for more than 600 spacecraft sent to Earth orbit and beyond, including the International Space Station and NASA’s Mars rovers.
“We’re constantly thinking about what’s next, advanced technologies,” said Spectrolab President Anthony Mueller. “We’re not stopping in terms of technology, we’re actually inventing the future as we sit here today.”
Spectrolab used the anniversary celebration to unveil its newest product, the XTJ Prime. The space solar cell has an energy efficiency of 30.7 percent with a 4 percent lower cost in dollars-per-watt power generation, company officials said.
“XTJ Prime is the world’s most efficient space solar cell,” Mueller said. “This is just another example of the great innovation, technology, attention to detail that we’ve had here over the last 60 years. We believe this is the first and only cell that can say we can produce 3.4 watts of energy, each one of these, 3.4 watts, enabling our customers to reduce their part count, become even more efficient, and, of course, make things more affordable for them.”
Officials at one of the company’s competitors, SolAero Technologies Corporation of Albuquerque, New Mexico, disputed Stratolab’s claims about the XTJ Prime being the most efficient space solar panel.
“We at SolAero have produced nearly 20,000 [Inverted Metamorphic Module] solar cells in the past several years, with an average conversion efficiency on the order of 33 percent or about 8 percent (relative) higher performance than the XTJ Prime’s performance,” said Navid S. Fatemi, SolAero’s senior vice president. “Spectrolab’s claim that their recent solar cell technology is the most efficient in existence is therefore not accurate.”
Arastu said several factors are changing the business: the end of the era of cost-plus contracts; the entry of new space companies run by dot.com businessmen who are very focused on cost; NASA’s focus on solar electric propulsion for future space exploration missions; and the development of large, power-hungry geosynchronous satellites as well as large constellations of small satellites.
“Going forward, our focus has to be not only getting best possible performance, but best affordable performance to be able to compete in those markets,” Arastu said. “So, that is what our focus will be, and has been for the last few years.
“We see a number of missions that are now being enabled which are very low cost, and a lot of small companies can put these missions together, including universities, small companies [and] research institutes going to a large company that can put a whole constellation of them,” Arastu added. “So we see that market segment growing rapidly, with a huge demand. [The] GEO market is restricted.”
Mueller said that Spectrolab is well positioned to compete in the booming small satellite and cubesat markets.
“We see that market as emerging, and we are already playing in it,” Mueller said. “We’ve already played in that market space for years, if not decades. We have a number of key customers that are in the smallsat arena. We believe our products are well positioned there just like they are for large satellites. Typically on the smaller satellites, we see the need for smaller solar cells which we do here, and we’ve done for decades.”
Spiwak said that no matter how much things change in the space industry, Spectrolab has been a constant.
“On the space side today, the media is saturated with stories about how the world is going through a space revolution, a new space of sorts as technologies advance rapidly and new private entrants have entered or are entering the space business,” he said. “But, you know what? If you look closely through space history, you’ll see that Spectrolab has been there the whole time with consistent and incredible advances in technology.”
Arastu said he was excited about Spectrolab’s future.
“The exciting days are yet to come,” he said. “The next 60 years, in our business, I think, will be phenomonal.”