Spectrolab, the World Leader in Solar Cell Technology
Spectrolab Inc., a unit of Hughes Electronics Corporation, is the world's largest manufacturer of spacecraft solar cells. In 1999, Spectrolab broke another industry record when it announced the completion of its latest technological innovation, a solar cell with the ability to convert 26% of the sun's rays into electrical power, a first in the solar cell industry.
Spectrolab is headquartered in Sylmar, Calif., approximately 20 miles north of Los Angeles. The company was founded in 1956, and is one of the world's leading suppliers of photovoltaic solar cells, solar panels, searchlights, and solar simulators. With an employee population of approximately 800, Spectrolab has been supplying solar array panels to the space industry for 40 years. Spectrolab was acquired by Hughes Electronics Corporation in 1975.
Spectrolab's origins can be traced back to the entertainment industry, when a group of engineers from Technicolor, Inc. left the company and began providing high-quality optical filters and mirrors for use in government contracts. Spectrolab established its credibility in the space industry, with Pioneer 1 in 1958 carrying they company's first body-mounted solar panels; Explorer 6, the satellite that in 1959 provided the first photo of Earth from space, carrying Spectrolab's first solar arrays; and the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which placed the first solar cell panel on the moon.
As the demand for more powerful, more efficient, and more capable satellites increased in the 1970s and 1980s, Spectrolab, with assistance from the U.S. Air Force, continued to lead the industry with increasingly more powerful solar cells, and with each successive innovation, increased the efficiency from the basic 12% conversion rate of a silicon solar cell to 26%, using state-of-the-art gallium arsenide on germanium wafers to produce multi-junction solar cells. By the year 2002, the company hopes to offer solar cells with efficiencies as high at 40%.
Early in the development of solar cells, Spectrolab recognized an industry need to have the capability to test solar cells and other devices in the vacuum of space. In 1962, the company designed and began manufacturing both steady-state and pulsed simulators, which have since become an industry standard. A recent simulator, customized for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in the United Kingdom, is a 60,000-watt simulator which is being used to test aerospace flight hardware.
Spectrolab also continued its innovation in searchlight technology. In 1969, Bell Helicopter became the first customer for Spectrolab's first NightsunÃ¢ searchlight. At 30-million candlepower, the Nightsun is the world's most powerful airborne searchlight and is used by many fleets, including the British Ministry of Defense, which uses the Nightsun exclusively.
Today, customers around the world rely on Spectrolab's SX-16 and SX-5 searchlights to help pilots navigate at night. Kazan Helicopters of Russia and the Royal Netherlands Police use Spectrolab searchlights. In the United States, the U.S. Air Force has ordered searchlights for use on several of its helicopters, and the U.S. Border Patrol also relies on searchlights designed and built by Spectrolab.
In 1997, Spectrolab provided a next-generation searchlight to the movie industry for use in the film "Dante's Peak," starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. The movie centers on the exploration of a volcano, and, upon learning of its volatility, one geologist's goal of convincing the mayor and evacuating the town. The search and rescue helicopters carried searchlights provided by Spectrolab.
The foundation of Spectrolab's success lies in its ability to rapidly transfer cutting-edge technology from a laboratory setting to a manufacturing process. The company's first mass production line was established in 1982, and today Spectrolab has the ability to produce nearly one megawatt of solar cells, enough to outfit 100 10,000-watt spacecraft, such as the HS 601 satellite, manufactured by sister company Hughes Space and Communications Company, the world's largest satellite manufacturer.
Hughes, in fact, will debut its first HS 702, a 15,000-watt satellite, in 1999 with the launch of Galaxy XI. The unique solar panels on the HS 702, consisting of a 75-foot panel with angled solar reflectors on each side of the panel, will focus even more of the sun's energy onto the solar cells, enabling the spacecraft to achieve its highest power ever.
Spectrolab has invested millions of dollars in high-technology machinery to achieve its high production rate. In 1993, the company installed the world's largest advanced MOVPE (metal organic vapor phase epitaxy) reactor as part of a high-capacity gallium arsenide solar cell production line. Through the addition of these and other manufacturing process enhancements, the company hopes to continue to increase its production capacity and capture even more of the world's solar cell market.