The math is pretty basic. How many satellites will go up in the next decade? How many solar panels will they need? And how many are made that match the invoice? It turns out the answers are: a lot, a hell by a lot and not enough. This is where Regher Solar aims to make its mark, reducing the cost of space-grade solar panels by 90% while increasing them by an order of magnitude.
It’s not exactly a small goal, but luckily science and the market seem to be supporting it, giving the company a tailwind. The question is to find the right balance between cost and performance while remaining relatively simple to manufacture. Of course if there was an easy answer the, someone would do it already.
Solar cells used on the planet’s surface are very different from those used in space. Because here there are few size and mass limitations; you can make cells bigger, heavier, and less efficient – and much cheaper. Space solar cells, on the other hand, must be highly efficient, extremely light, and resistant to various dangers in space, such as radiation and temperature fluctuations: a high-end product that costs five to ten times as much and uses small-scale processes and expensive materials.
Regher Solar has created a space-grade solar cell that while not reaching those dedicated space solar levels is not that far away, but costs a fraction of that price and can be manufactured on a large scale with the processes. existing. If you’re making a single $ 200 million geostationary satellite, you don’t mind paying for the best panels on the market, as that is only a small portion of the overall cost. But if you’re looking to deploy 10,000 small satellites with a short lifespan, panels start to be a bigger part of your BOM, and 20% performance doesn’t sound so bad.
Stanislau Herasimenka, CEO and co-founder of Regher, explained that there is no silver bullet for their product, but rather many incremental improvements and an understanding of what is really important for the new space economy.
“Technology has evolved in a high cost, low volume space,” he explained. “Space panels, they start with a very expensive substrate, usually germanium or gallium arsenic, and many expensive treatments. Then there’s the space-grade interconnect, an expensive glass and carbon fiber or aluminum substrate, manual assembly… top performance and low degradation, but it’s absolutely not scalable. If they wanted 10 times as much, they just couldn’t do it.
Yet we are clearly on track to double, triple and possibly 10X the number of satellites launched. They can’t just slap terrestrial cells there – they would fail quickly – and proven manufacturers of sophisticated III-V cells won’t have enough stock. So Regher took the best of both worlds to make their cells space-ready, yet inexpensive. and can be done in a hurry.
“Currently, we are operating an R&D pilot line where we can manufacture small amounts of panels – 50 kilowatts, about 5% of what the space industry does,” he said. “But because we designed with silicon and the package is compatible with automated production, we should be able to go from pilot to 10 megawatts, which is 10 times more than the space industry does, in a year. “
Although the product is new, it does not use any exotic or unprecedented techniques, so a ramp up like this can really be possible. Herasimenka described some of the changes they made to achieve space-like performance at Earth-like prices.
At first, they reduced the thickness of the silicon substrate, which means that it is paradoxically much more resistant to radiation, because it will absorb less. They also modified the impurities and doping so that it hardens at a low temperature, repairing damage done by simply being heated to 80 degrees Celsius. The coating, interconnection and bond are spatially stable. There’s also less space dedicated to what you might call the telescope, leaving sun-sensitive cells to take up more area. The plan is also to make them flexible (as the pictures show here), to better adapt to unusual shapes and to increase physical resistance.
Knowing how far to go depended on the moving target, that is, the cost and expected lifespan of a given satellite tied to a constellation. It’s counterintuitive, but it can be a danger to a constellation company like Starlink if their satellites are working too well. With thousands of satellites, unit economics kicks in – and you don’t want them to be better or more expensive than they should be if the announced plan is to replace them five years after launch. If they’re still 100%, you probably could have saved a lot of money somewhere along the line.
“Constellation designers design for a particular period of time in a particular orbit,” Herasimenka said. “Nobody wants to live two weeks, and nobody wants 15 years; most of the time, they go to low earth orbit and only live there for five to seven years. So we designed for this exact requirement. If they degrade after that, we don’t care because our client doesn’t care.
Regher entered this emerging market which landed him a spot in Techstars’ 2019 bundle, after which they began talking to manufacturers and making deals. They also won a NASA SBIR Phase I and an NSF Phase II award, totaling $ 1.1 million. With prototypes and validation funding in hand, they raised $ 33 million in LOIs over the summer and an additional $ 50 million is being put in place, Herasimenka said.
As promising as it may be, the company needs to act quickly or risk others moving in and eating their lunch. “Everything can change in just a few years, and by the time an industry realizes it, the market opportunity is gone,” he said. It is clear that Regher Solar intends to seize this opportunity, but they are now looking for significant investments to put their pilot first and then later the large scale manufacturing lines into high gear. They aren’t ready to announce details, but Herasimenka said they have a $ 5 million institutional funding round that is expected to close before the end of the year, plus $ 750,000 from individuals.
With interest from established aerospace companies and the seals of approval (via SBIR) from NASA and NSF, Regher seems well positioned to play his part. Is the difficult part to design the new panel or to manufacture it? They are about to find out.