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History of Solar Energy Part 3: Solar Takes Off

history of solar energy

Last time we left off in the history of solar energy part 2, we learned how the big oil companies had a lot to do with the advancement of solar energy in the beginning.

With a boost from their resources, solar started to take off in the use of products and…. in the first ever solar powered home.

So what was next? Buckle up, because we’re about to take you for a ride!

That’s right- the first ever solar cars, planes, and even space satellites to use solar energy.

And then we’ll take a detour through the first boom in solar energy for home use.

Let’s get started!

Solar in Space Highlights

We learned last time that the use of solar energy in space made its first appearance in the 1950’s with the launch of the Vanguard I space satellite. At the time, solar energy was used to power one of its radios. But what about powering an entire satellite?

Nimbus solar

Nimbus satellite

Launching the Solar-Powered Satellites 

In 1964, only 6 years after the launch of Vanguard I, NASA launched the first Nimbus satellite, of which there were 8 in total.

The Nimbus spacecrafts were used for meteorological research and development. They also sported solar panel wings.

In 1966 NASA launched the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory which was powered by… you guessed it: a solar panel array.

This observatory provided astronomical data in the ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere.

The International Space Station Goes Solar

And then in 2000, a huge advancement for the use of solar panels in space happened.

The International Space Station got an upgrade with solar panels installed on its wings.

This marked the largest solar power array ever deployed in space.

Back then each “wing” of the array consisted of 32,800 solar cells.

And as of today, there are 262,400 solar cells that cover an area of about 27,000 square feet.

international space station solar

International Space Station image via Nasa.gov

Space-based Solar Power Stations 

In 1968 an idea for a space-based solar power station was first conceived by Peter Glaser, and by 1973 he had the patent. But it didn’t turn into a reality for awhile.

Between 1978 and 1986 the government approved funding for the research of this concept. However, the project was defunded shortly after and no viable product became of it.

Not until 2019 did China finally announce long-term plans to build solar power satellites. And they’re still working on it today.

Solar Takes Flight

After solar energy took off for use in space, the next stop was the use of solar energy in aircraft.

The Solar Challenger Sets its Course
Solar Challenger

Image via @paulcoxon

It all began with the Solar Challenger, the first solar-powered aircraft.

The Solar Challenger had over 16,000 solar cells mounted on its wings and produced 3,000 watts of power.

And in 1981 Paul MacCready flew it from France to England across the English Channel.

The Icare Gets On Board

The next advancement came in 1996 when Icare was built. Icare was the world’s most advanced solar-powered airplane at the time.

The wings and tail surfaces of the Icare were covered by 3,000 super-efficient solar cells.

Icare took off over Germany in 1996.

The Pathfinder: First Remote Control Solar Aircraft

The Pathfinder was a remote-controlled solar-powered aircraft that took off in 1998.

NASA’s second version of the Pathfinder was called the Pathfinder-Plus.

This remote-controlled aircraft took off in July and utilized four of five sections of the original Pathfinder wing, topped with more efficient solar cells, which boosted its maximum power potential. The power potential of the original Pathfinder was 7,500 watts while the Pathfinder-Plus had 12,500 watts.

The Pathfinder-Plus quickly proved its worth. It demonstrated use as a high-altitude platform for telecommunications technologies and as an aerial imaging system for coffee growers.

It achieved 80,000 feet, an altitude higher than any prop-driven aircraft thus far.

pathfinder solar plane

The Pathfinder Image via Nasa.gov

The Helios Prototype Sets a New Record and Falls into the Ocean

It wasn’t long before the record was broken though.

NASA developed the Helios Prototype, a solar-powered remote aircraft.

In 2001 the Helios Prototype took off and set a new world record for non-rocket powered aircraft: 96,863 feet.

Shortly after in 2003 the Helios Prototype broke apart and fell into the Pacific Ocean.

The Solar Impulse Gets a Crew

And finally in 2010, the Solar Impulse took the world’s first manned 26-hour solar-powered flight. During its 26-hour flight, the plane was powered by solar completely for 9 hours.

Then in 2012, it completed its first flight from Switzerland to Spain and then Morocco piloted by Swiss developers: engineer and businessman André Borschberg and Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard.

They broke new air again in 2015 when they began to circumnavigate the world with the Solar Impulse 2.

Solar Takes a Drive

Around the same time that solar powered planes were taking off, the car world jumped into the solar powered spotlight.

It started in 1955 with the invention of the first model solar car.

A GM employee named William Cobb created a tiny 15-inch vehicle powered by 12 solar panels and a small electric motor. He named it the Sunmobile and it was displayed at the 1955 Chicago, Powerama convention.

The Quiet Achiever Drives on Sunshine  

The Sunmobile wasn’t exactly practical but it wasn’t until 1982 that the first solar powered car suitable for long distances appeared.

The Quiet Achiever, as it was named, went for its first drive in 1982 in sunny Australia.

In the land down under, Hans Tholstrup drove it almost 2,800 miles between Sydney and Perth in 20 days.

This may not seem very fast, but it was 10 days faster than the first gasoline-powered car!

Read the full story of the Quiet Achiever by Tom Snooks.

solar quiet achiever

Image via Tom Snooks

Dasher Wagons Get a Sunny Upgrade

Shortly after the Quiet Achiever made its first drive across Australia in 1982, Volkswagen of Germany began to test out using solar panels mounted on the roofs of their “Dasher” station wagons.

The solar panels generated 160 watts for the ignition system.

Solar powered cars have been in evolution since then, including the newest all-electric solar car named Lightyear One, scheduled to be released in 2021.

Just think, in the future you could be driving with the power of the sun!

lightyear one solar car

Image via Wikipedia

Solar Cars Race to the Finish Line

Solar cars then put the pedal to the metal with the introduction of solar car racing.

And in 2009 the Tokai Challenger became the winner of the 2009 and 2011 World Solar Challenge, a race for solar cars across Australia.

The Tokai Challenger covered 1,858 miles in 29 hours 49 minutes and it took an average speed of 62 mph.

It may not be ready for the Indy 500, but this still was pretty impressive for a solar powered car.

Solar in Home

In our last learning series, we learned that the solar for home use started in 1973 when the University of Delaware built “Solar One”,  the very first solar-powered home.

But the concept of a solar-powered home was actually conceived of a lot earlier in 1940 by an MIT researcher named Maria Telkes.

The Solar Queen Rules

Telkes won the name of ‘solar queen’ because of her ideas about the concept of powering a home with solar power, long before it could become a reality.

Telkes was an MIT researcher in the Department of Metallurgy, and she paired with Eleanor Raymond, a Boston-based architect.

This female team dreamed up and built the theoretical Dover House, a home heated entirely by the sun. At that time, both the house and the female duo made the news.

Dover solar house

The Dover House Image via University of Delaware

Learn more about the Dover House story.

Solar For Home Use: The Early Milestones

Although Charles Fritts actually installed the first solar panels on a rooftop in NYC in 1884, the first solar panels that were used on an occupied home didn’t happen until after the 1973 Solar One house.

first solar array

Charles Fritts first solar array Image via Smithsonian Magazine

But ever since then, solar energy for home use has exploded throughout the world. A few of the highlights include:

A Colorado Family Goes Solar

In 2000 a family in Morrison, Colorado, installed a 12-kilowatt solar electric system on its home.

This marked the largest residential installation in the United States to be registered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Million Solar Roofs” program. The solar system provided most of the electricity for the 6,000- square-foot home and family of eight.

A San Diego Home Depot Sells Solar

Then in 2001 Home Depot began selling residential solar power systems in three of its stores in San Diego, California. A year later it expanded sales to include 61 stores nationwide.

A Jail in Santa Rita Gets the Gift of Solar

In that same year, Powerlight Corporation installed the largest rooftop solar power system in the United States—a 1.18 megawatt system—at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California.

Where did home solar energy go from there?

Now that you’ve seen how solar can power cars, planes, space stations, and homes (oh my!), it’s about time to wrap up. And if you’re wondering what comes next for solar power and how it leads to more solar powered innovations in the future, stay tuned for our next learning series.

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