Do-It-Yourself Podcast: Solar Arrays

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Solar Arrays: In This Module

A view of the International Space Station's solar arraysThe International Space Station is larger than a five-bedroom house. How do you power something that size in space? The sun. In the Solar Arrays background information, learn why electricity is vital to the station and how solar panels provide the needed power. More About Solar Arrays and Electricity links you to facts and mission information about the solar panels.

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  • An astronaut aboard the station explaining how the station is powered.
  • Awesome views of the station's solar panels as it orbits Earth.

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Solar Arrays Background Information

Oxygen, water, food and heat are essential for human survival. But on the International Space Station, the most critical need is electricity. Without electricity, there would be no oxygen, water or heat. On the space station, the electrically powered Environmental Control and Life Support System, or ECLSS, provides for these needs. The ECLSS has several functions, including:

  • To provide oxygen
  • To provide water for drinking, food preparation and hygiene
  • To remove carbon dioxide from the air
  • To filter the air
  • To maintain the air pressure
  • To maintain temperature and humidity levels
  • To distribute air between connected modules

The two main parts of the ECLSS are the Water Recovery System and the Oxygen Generation System. The Water Recovery System recycles crew member urine and wastewater for reuse as clean water. The Oxygen Generation System produces oxygen by using electricity to break water into oxygen and hydrogen. The process is called electrolysis.

The space station crew uses electricity to prepare food, just as we do on Earth. In the space station kitchen, or galley, crew members can heat their meals with food warmers or mix rehydratable food with hot water.

Besides providing for human survival in space, electricity also powers computers, equipment and experiments. The International Space Station is an orbiting science laboratory with many different types of experiments that require electricity.
Space station solar arrays Two blankets of solar cells make up a solar array wing, or SAW. Each wing is 115 feet long by 38 feet wide. Each SAW weighs more than 2,400 pounds and uses 32,800 solar array cells. Image Credit: NASA
How do you get electricity approximately 250 miles above Earth? No extension cord or power cable is available for that job. The best source of energy for spacecraft is sunlight. Engineers have developed technologies to convert solar energy to electrical power efficiently.

Solar arrays that convert energy to electricity on the space station are made of thousands of solar cells. The solar cells are made from purified chunks of the element silicon. These cells directly convert light to electricity using a process called photovoltaics.

NASA and its partners developed a method of mounting solar arrays on a "blanket." The blanket can be folded like an accordion for delivery to space and then deployed, or spread out, to its full size once in orbit.

Space station solar array wingsTwo solar array wings make up a set of solar arrays. The two wings are deployed in opposite directions. The total wingspan is more than 240 feet, including equipment that connects the two halves and allows the SAW to turn toward the sun. Image Credit: NASA The space station's solar arrays were installed over several space shuttle missions. When astronaut Bill McArthur was on the station, it had one set of solar array wings. McArthur was the commander of Expedition 12 from October 2005 through April 2006. In March 2009, the STS-119 space shuttle crew installed and deployed the fourth and final set of solar arrays.

Altogether, the four sets of arrays can generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity -- enough to provide power to more than 40 homes. Electricity is measured in units of power called watts. A kilowatt equals 1,000 watts. An active computer and monitor may use up to 270 watts. A small refrigerator uses about 725 watts.

The solar arrays produce more power than the station needs at one time for station systems and experiments. When the station is in sunlight, about 60 percent of the electricity that the solar arrays generate is used to charge the station's batteries. At times, some or all of the solar arrays are in the shadow of Earth or the shadow of part of the station. This means that those arrays are not collecting sunlight. The batteries power the station when it is not in the sun.

Space station solar array wing panels The International Space Station has four sets of solar arrays. Image Credit: NASA On Earth, the electricity that comes from power plants is called alternating current, or AC. In the United States, this means that the direction of the current, or flow, of electricity changes about 60 times per second. The alternating current is the best way for electricity to travel over long distances. On the station, the electricity does not have to travel as far. The solar arrays convert sunlight to direct current, or DC, power. DC flows in the same direction at all times.

McArthur was part of a two-member crew. Since all the solar arrays have been added, the station now has enough power for the life-support needs of six crew members.

There is also enough electricity to run experiments and equipment in the U.S., Russian, Japanese and European laboratories.

Solar Array Facts
  • Together the arrays contain a total of 262,400 solar cells and cover an area of about 27,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) -- more than half the area of a football field.
  • A solar array's wingspan of 240 feet (73 meters) is longer than a Boeing 777's wingspan, which is 212 feet (65 meters).
  • The space station's electrical power system is connected by eight miles (12.9 kilometers) of wire.
More About Solar Arrays and Electricity
› How Do Photovoltaics Work?
› Powering the Future
› STS-119 Cosmic Corridor
› STS-117 -- InfoOrb
› Failure to Recycle Is Not an Option
› STS-119: A Final Station Power Up


Page Last Updated: September 18th, 2014
Page Editor: Sandra May