North Texas University (UNT) engineers have utilized a nickel-titanium shape memory alloy to increase the solar panel efficiency on CubeSats.
The new energy efficient system was the university’s official entry at the CASMART 3rd Student Design Challenge in Germany, and it beat nine other university teams to take first place.
CubeSats, sometimes called micro-satellites, can be as small as a 4-inch cube. They often use off-the-shelf parts and are inexpensive to launch into low-earth orbit.
Now combines these qualities with a shape memory alloy’s ability to alter its shape in response to temperature changes. These changes can be used to push, pull and rotate a CubeSat’s solar panels without the need for sophisticated moving parts and heavy power usage.
According to the UNT team, the alloy takes up less space than hydraulic or pneumatic systems and by eliminating pumps, gears, fluids and seals, there are fewer parts to fail.
“The amount of power available in CubeSats prior to solar panel deployment is very, very limited,” says engineering senior Michael Ayers. “Until it goes solar, the CubeSat is essentially a phone with no charger. Once the battery is gone, it’s over.”
The system designed by Ayers, and fellow students Brittany Thurstin, Kelsa Adams, Jordan Barnes, Robert Boone and David Evers opens, closes and moves a CubeSat’s solar panels in space using just 20 watts of battery power.
“For this project, we developed three separate shape memory alloy mechanisms for our CubeSat, named Penny: a retention mechanism that holds the solar panels in place during launch; a deployment mechanism that extends the solar panels into space; and an actuator that moves the panels to follow the sun,” notes Thurstin.
“Applying a minimal amount of electricity provides all the mechanical energy needed to get the satellite up and running. We actually built a CubeSat to show just how the shape memory alloy system would work.”
The UNT team believes that their research goes much beyond controlling solar panels on CubeSats and could be used in aeronautics, automotive, space, and bio-medical applications.
Image and content: Michael Clements/University of North Texas