For a spacecraft, the sun is a particularly vital supplier of energy, and the recent Artemis I mission proved just how powerful it can be to harness solar energy in space. During the nearly month-long flight around the moon, NASA tested all functions of the uncrewed spacecraft, including the Orion crew capsule’s innovative solar panels. The vehicle’s solar panels exceeded expectations, proving themselves to be a key technology for the future of human space exploration.
The Paris-based agency’s main contribution to Orion is the European Service Module, which houses the solar panels and other critical systems.
Each of these wings holds three gallium arsenide solar panels, a particularly efficient and durable type of solar cell made for space.
“Usually solar arrays have only one axis of rotation so that they can follow the sun,” says Berthe.
During Artemis I’s 26-day mission, the combined NASA and ESA team tested all aspects of the solar panels, including their ability to rotate, unfold, and produce power.
That has consequences for future Artemis missions: “Either the size of the solar arrays could be reduced,” he says, “Or they could provide more power to Orion.” Smaller solar arrays could reduce the cost of missions, but more power could allow for additional capabilities onboard the crewed spacecraft.
These nimble solar panels are also equipped with cameras on their wingtips, which Matthias Gronowski, Airbus Chief Engineer for the European Service Module, likens to a “Selfie stick” for the mission.
The solar panels are one part of the pioneering technology of Artemis and Orion, and this first test flight proves they are a reliable technology for distant space travel.