Photovoltaics in Satellites

The first satellite powered by the sun was sent into orbit 50 years ago this month. Photovoltaics have progressed much since then, but the progress has been slower than many people realize

3 min read
Photo-illustration: Stuart Bradford
Photo-illustration: Stuart Bradford

Sixty years ago this month, a rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral bearing the Vanguard 1 satellite, a small, 1.46-kilogram aluminum sphere that was the first to use photovoltaic cells in orbit.

As a safeguard, one of the satellite’s two transmitters drew power from mercury batteries, but they failed after just three months. The six monocrystalline silicon cells, each roughly 5 centimeters on a side and delivering a total of just 1 watt, kept on powering a beacon transmitter for 14 months, until May 1964.

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Top Tech 2023: A Special Report

These two dozen technical projects should make significant advances in the coming year

2 min read
Top Tech 2023: A Special Report
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Each January, the editors of IEEE Spectrum offer up some predictions about technical developments we expect to be in the news over the coming year. You’ll find a couple dozen of those described in the following special report. Of course, the number of things we could have written about is far higher, so we had to be selective in picking which projects to feature. And we’re not ashamed to admit, gee-whiz appeal often shaped our choices.

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