Spaceflight Insider

ATK to provide UltraFlex solar arrays for InSight Lander

ATK's UltraFlex solar array opens like an umbrella and is reinforced by a tensioned blanket and the backbone of its stowage panels.

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) Mars lander, which will provide information from deep beneath the Martian surface, will be powered by UltraFlex solar arrays. ATK, an aerospace, defense and commercial products company with operations in 22 states, Puerto Rico and internationally, was awarded the contract by Lockheed Martin to develop the arrays which will provide all the electrical power for the lander.

The UltraFlex solar arrays passed their design review in February of 2014. The InSight solar panels will be delivered for testing in 2015.

Lockheed Martin will build the InSight spacecraft. The project overall is being managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lander will be equipped with a seismometer, heat flow probe, and cameras, and will use a technique called RISE to measure the planet’s wobble. The InSight mission will reveal new insights of terrestrial planet formation. Since Mars is less geologically active than Earth, we can learn more about the formation of rocky planets by studying Mars than we can on Earth.

Artist's conception of the InSight Lander on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

Artist’s conception of the InSight Lander on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

The UltraFlex solar arrays are composed of interconnected, ultra-lightweight triangles called gores. It folds up into a smaller volume than other types of array. When deployed, the array opens up like an umbrella. Once deployed, it remains stiff thanks to its tensioned blanket and the backbone formed by the stowage panels. These same arrays that powered the Mars Phoenix Lander in 2008.

“UltraFlex is known for the unique round fan-fold design that enables much higher performance than typical spacecraft solar arrays,” said David Shanahan, vice president and general manager of ATK’s Space Components division. “With spacecraft facing increasingly ambitious low-mass and constrained packaging requirements, ATK’s arrays deliver all the power our customers need with this enabling technology.”

ATK’s website states, “In many cases UltraFlex’s unique performance characteristics have been key to a mission’s feasibility.”

In fact, the UltraFlex solar arrays are partially credited with the Phoenix mission’s having been extended three times.

ATK's MegaFlex panels will be used on the Cygnus spacecraft later this year. Photo Credit: NASA

ATK’s MegaFlex panels will be used on the Cygnus spacecraft later this year. Photo Credit: NASA

A similar solar panel is being developed for use in NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). MegaFlex is a variation on the UltraFlex design, modified for high-powered spacecraft such as those using solar electric propulsion, one of the key ingredients of ARM. The MegaFlex solar array will provide over ten times the power of the largest satellite arrays in use today.

The UltraFlex solar arrays will be flown later in 2014 aboard the Commercial Resupply System (CRS) developed by Orbital Science to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Earlier this year the Cygnus cargo ship was launched by an Antares rocket carrying a Pressurized Cargo Module for delivery to the ISS.

“Providing performance and weight savings is critical for spacecraft providers,” Shanahan said in 2011. “UltraFlex solar arrays provide the highest power for the lowest mass, enabling larger payloads and ensuring the success of more taxing missions.”



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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

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