Air Force and Northrop Grumman Researchers Make Space Solar Breakthrough

December 28, 2021 by Dan McCue
Air Force and Northrop Grumman Researchers Make Space Solar Breakthrough
Project Managers James Winter (Air Force Research Laboratory) and Tara Theret (Northrop Grumman) hold models of the photovoltaic and the radio frequency sides of the sandwich tile, while at the Linthicum, Maryland facility, to witness the conversion and beaming experiment. (Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — Researchers preparing for the first flight of the Arachne, an experimental solar power satellite, have successfully conducted the first end-to-end demonstration of a key piece of hardware — its unique solar panels.

The Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research project is a joint initiative of the Air Force Research Laboratory and Northrop Grumman.

In 2018, the laboratory awarded the contractors a contract in excess of $100 million to develop a payload for the International Space Station to demonstrate the critical components of a prototype space solar power system.

The just completed a successful  “ground” demonstration focused on the components for a “sandwich tile” which were used to successfully convert solar energy to radio frequency. This is the first of several steps toward creating a reliable large-scale solar power collection system in space.


The sandwich tile consists of two layers. The first layer is a panel of highly efficient photovoltaic cells which collect solar energy and provide power to the second layer. The second layer is populated with components that enable solar-to-RF conversion and beamforming.


“The successful conversion of sunlight into RF energy in a lightweight and scalable architecture is a significant step forward in delivering the technology building blocks to achieve the Arachne mission,” said Jay Patel, vice president, remote sensing programs business unit, Northrop Grumman, in a written statement. 

The ground demonstration used a solar simulator to illuminate the PV side of the tile and begin the solar-to-RF conversion process. Because the solar simulator was so intense, attendees viewed real-time RF output data on monitors from behind an industrial grade flexible plastic barrier and cheered when an RF energy peak appeared indicating successful power conversion and RF radiated power.

“The [Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project] office is very excited about this baseline capability being exercised in the laboratory environment,” said Deputy Project Manager Melody Martinez. “Converting solar energy into RF energy at the component-level is a pivotal step to realizing space-based solar power beaming on a larger scale.”

“It was extremely exciting to be present for this critical milestone in the SSPIDR portfolio, and seeing all the hard work our partners at Northrop Grumman have accomplished,” said Kyle Gleichmann, Arachne’s chief engineer. “We look forward to future milestones as we move forward to launching this keystone payload. It’s crucial we demonstrate this technology on-orbit as soon as possible to meet our nation’s needs.” 


The first “in flight” test of the system aboard the International Space Station is currently scheduled for 2023. The Arachne, meanwhile, is scheduled to launch in 2025.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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