Perovskite solar cells could power future long-distance space missions

The material went through severe stress, which relaxed when it returned to the ground.
Ameya Paleja
Perovskite solar cells could be the answer to low-cost energy in outer space
Perovskite solar cells could be the answer to low-cost energy in outer space


A research team led by Lyndsey McMillon-Brown at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland was overjoyed when they saw that perovskite-containing solar cells sent to the International Space Station (ISS) performed over and above their expectations. This is the first experiment where perovskites have been tested in space.

In recent years, perovskites have made quite a splash on Earth by demonstrating higher efficiencies when it comes to converting solar energy into electricity. The material has been at the center of solar cell research and promises to make solar power more mainstream in the coming years.

However, when it comes to outer space, humanity is still an ideal power source for its missions and instruments. Solar cells made using perovskites could offer scientists that much-needed flexibility and low-cost power source that they seek but it needs to be extensively tested before being sent to Mars or even the Moon.

A 10-month-long space trip

Various research teams are experimenting with different facets of the perovskite solar cells, but a journey through space is a different feat altogether. The solar cell will face changes in temperatures, radiation, light, and vacuum – at the same time – something that is impossibly difficult to replicate on Earth.

So, a team of researchers led by McMillon-Brown created a 1-inch by 1-inch sample in 2019, and once it passed through the stringent requirements of spaceflight, it was blasted off to the ISS in March 2020.

The sample was part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) platform and also became a part of a spacewalk when astronauts took it out of the ISS, opened it, and attached it to the outside of the space station to expose it to the rigors of space.

For nearly a year, the sample, along with others in the suitcase-like MISSE, orbited around the planet and went through multiple exposures to direct sunlight under the extreme conditions of space. A similar sample remained on Earth as a control for the experiment.

Perovskite solar cells could power future long-distance space missions
The MISSE experiment outside the ISS

After the sample returned to Earth in January 2021, researchers from the University of California Merced as well as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, performed post-flight analysis.

The researchers found that extreme temperature swings during the flight constantly expanded and shrank the sample putting it under quite a bit of stress. However, they also found that when the sample was exposed to light back on Earth, the stresses relaxed and it marked a return to its sunlight-absorbing capacities again. In contrast, the sample that remained on Earth did not exhibit similar properties.

The team also found that exposure to space also caused a rearrangement of perovskite crystals inside the solar cell and changed how they absorbed light for the better. "Not only do they survive, but in some ways, they thrived," said McMillon-Brown in a press release. "I love thinking of the applications of our research and that we’re going to be able to meet the power needs of missions that are not feasible with current solar technologies.”

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board