Spacecraft Power Systems

Technical Applications


Spacecraft power systems provide power for spacecraft mission, communications, and housekeeping functions. In the case of lunar or planetary missions that involve instrumented or human landings, surface power systems must also be provided. Efficiency, power density, reliability, environmental risk, safety, shielding, etc. must all be considered in any power system.


The following issues are important for space or surface power systems: Power generation (the energy source) Possible options include solar (photovoltaic, thermoelectric, thermionic, or dynamic), batteries and fuel cells, nuclear (radioisotopes, fission, fusion), other (antimatter, winds, chemical) Energy storage, with options such as batteries, fuel cells, flywheels, capacitors, and superconducting rings Power handling, including conditioning, control, packaging, enhancement, and conversion Thermal management, as a means of handling system heat including heat transfer rejection or storage as well as thermodynamic, thermoelectric, and thermionic cycles Power transmission, using laser, microwave, or millimeter waves over long distances, or perhaps cables and/or fiber optics for connecting components on lunar or planetary surfaces.


Space power systems are relevant to both economic progress and national security. They contribute to sustainable economic growth through promoting efficient energy production and utilization technology, and help the environmental monitoring and assessment function through their ability to provide long term power for environmental monitoring satellites. They contribute to national security through their ability to provide energy sources for military surveillance systems.


The U.S. is preeminent in spacecraft power systems, based largely on the relative scale and sophistication of its space effort. Only the U.S. and Russia are manufacturing radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) essential for the space mission to the planets, but there is a possibility that the U.S. will abandon research in this technology.