Powering the Future: Rocket Lab's Solar BOOST

Nobody sees them in the night sky because, up there, they just get lost in the mix of stars and planets. But as we explore space, these compound semiconductors are the unsung heroes that are now powering all our orbits and spacecraft. From the billion-plus square centimetres of solar cells that power today’s commercial satellite constellations, to the state-of-the-art thin-film GaAs solar cells that drive the giant mirrors of the most advanced scientific observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, we couldn’t do any of it without those critical components. That’s why US president Joe Biden’s administration recently announced a $24 million investment to ramp up production of those critical components through Rocket Lab. It’s much more than power for spacecraft – it’s an investment in the backbone of space technology.

BOOSTING Solar Cell Production: A Stellar Leap

Helping to drive this lofty effort is SolAero Technologies, a subsidiary of Rocket Lab, for whom the proposed federal funding would catalyse a 50 per cent increase in output of compound semiconductors over three years. That’s to make sure the satellites and spacecraft that require these solar cells won’t be left in the dark, so they can explore, communicate and innovate.

The Power Behind the Mission

This funding – about which the US Commerce Department has announced that it might make an award – reflects the crucial role that solar cells play in the functioning and wellbeing of space technology: ‘There’s no space technology at all that can function without solar cells,’ as she puts it; and its role in sustaining the technological sojourn that both the military, NASA and the rapidly growing commercial space industry embark on: ‘This is the lifeline that keeps our technology going.’ These mission-critical functions of the solar cell – without which so much of our society and culture would largely shut down – are what made Rethink almost certain that the problem of photovoltaic stability wasn’t going to be solved because, she says, ‘everyone got in the habit of saying: “Oh but it works”. And at some point, that can’t fly, especially when we’re sending spacecraft to last for 40 years. You have to figure out … how to quantify and measure this degradation and then to design the system for that degradation.’

A Dual BOOST: Federal and State Collaboration

This fiscal push is supported by a two-pronged thrust from the federal and state levels. New Mexico, SolAero’s home state, will be adding $25.5 million in financial incentives to the federal funding. This is not just about expanded manufacturing capacity, it is also about bolstering the local economy by creating more than 100 manufacturing jobs at SolAero’s Albuquerque plants.

The CHIPS and Science Act: Fueling the Future

That push is being fuelled by a $52.7 billion fund created by the CHIPS and Science Act that the US president Joe Biden signed into law in 2022. The law focuses on nurturing domestic semiconductor manufacturing and ‘supply-chain resiliency’ – an unmistakable message that the future of tech genius and economic might lies in making things at home.

Supercharging Space-Grade Solar Cells

When Rocket Lab snapped up the compound semiconductor manufacturer SolAero in 2022 for $80 million, it effectively made the human-rated spaceflight company a substantial player in the space-grade semiconductor space. SolAero is one of just two US manufacturers of radiation-hardened compound semiconductors. The additional capital will further guarantee that the solar cells propelling us into the stars will also withstand the rigours of space.

The Vertical Integration Advantage

This vertical integration, from manufacturing the cells to the solar panels and power modules that they power, is a major factor in its success. Every step of the process, from the tiniest semiconductor to the solar panels churning out power in space, has been driven by funding and development.

A New Dawn for Space Technology

With the Biden administration’s push for Rocket Lab and, by extension, SolAero Technologies, we have finally taken a step that will rapidly accelerate space technology. We seem to have realised that the key to space-based technological dominance – as well as operational space communication ability – runs through the heart of our US satellite and space operations. This boost isn’t just about ramping up production, it’s about keeping the US at the forefront of space-based technology.

Conclusion: The Significance of BOOST

Moving toward the conclusion, in this sense, the word ‘boost’ includes not just the thrust, the acceleration, the boosted ability to propel forward – it speaks to the propulsion not only of solar cells into a new era of energy output but also to the very frontier of space technology. Along with a sizable financial boost, Rocket Lab and SolAero can expect not only to increase their production capabilities but also to become a major player in achieving US strategic imperatives in space research and space communications technology. With targeted investments and by leveraging additional federal-state partnerships, space-grade semiconductor production will be ramped up considerably. This injection of capacity is not just about reinvigorating the economy after the pandemic or intensive technological development, it is a clear message about US resolve to retain a lead position in the new space race and build on it.

Jun 12, 2024
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