Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station

Illustration for article titled Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station

Solar arrays are the unsung heroes of the International Space Station, drawing power from the sun to create an oasis of warmth and safety in the vast darkness of space.

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Illustration for article titled Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station

Eight wings form four matched solar arrays on the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

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Eight massive wings on the International Space Station hold 262,400 solar cells, generating 84 to 120 kiowatts of electricity. Each wing is a single mast holding a pair of retractable blankets, mounted in opposing pairs to create a solar array.

Illustration for article titled Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station

Each wing is a set of foldable blankets draped from a sturdy structural mast. Image credit: NASA

Each wing is 35 meters (120 feet) long and 11.6 meters (38 feet) wide, with all eight covering over 2,500 square meters (27,000 square feet), or half a football field. The panels were folded into compact accordion-fans to launch from the planet.

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Illustration for article titled Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station

Astronauts Robert L. Curbeam Jr. and Christer Fuglesang ran into a kink when attempting to neatly tucked the solar array wing on the P6 truss into its blanket box during the STS-116 shuttle mission. Image credit: NASA

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The arrays twist and turn to track the Sun, spinning around the alpha gimbal to follow primary rotation and around the beta gimbal to adjust for the station’s angle with respect to the orbital ecliptic. The arrays can be set to different tracking modes to maximize power, or to increase or decrease drag to adjust station altitude.

Illustration for article titled Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station
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Astronaut Scott Parazynski use the Canadarm to get into position to repair damage to the 4B solar array ring on truss P6. Image credit: NASA

The station faces sunset every 92 minutes, leaving the solar arrays in darkness. To keep the station powered, about 60% of all power is devoted to charging batteries.

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Illustration for article titled Solar Panels are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station

Truss-based radiator panel and primary solar array panel seen by Expedition 38 on January 2, 2015. Image credit: NASA

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Top image: A solar array seen from the space station on February 12, 2015. Credit: ESA/NASA/Samantha Cristoforetti


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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DISCUSSION

How very socialist. Think of the industry we are denying by not running the space station on gasoline. This is just another piece in the long building liberal puzzle to undermine capitalism and free market.