Energy Efficient System To Control Solar Panels Wins 1st Place at CASMART Design Challenge

Student researchers at the University of North Texas College of Engineering have created an energy efficient system for controlling solar panels on CubeSats using a nickel-titanium shape memory alloy. Their work took first place at the CASMART 3rd Student Design Challenge in Germany – an international student competition calling for innovative technologies using shape memory alloy.

Shape memory alloys are able to alter their shape in response to temperature changes. The team sought to use this ability to be able to open, close, and move a CubeSat’s solar panels in space using just 20 watts of battery power. The shape memory alloy system takes up less space than systems currently in use – a major consideration when working with cubesats which can be as small as a 4 inch (~ 10 cm) cube – and has fewer parts to fail.

“The amount of power available in CubeSats prior to solar panel deployment is very, very limited,” said Michael Ayers, a mechanical and energy engineering senior at UNT. “Until it goes solar, the CubeSat is essentially a phone with no charger. Once the battery is gone, it’s over.”

“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,” said Brittney Thurston, one of the researchers. “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 teams’ research may have applications in industries such as aeronautics, automotive, space, bio-medical, and many others.