Bright ideas bring big investments

On that idea, Herasimenka refocused Regher Solar, founded with solar industry expert Michael Reginevich, to develop solar panels for space. The company name combines the first three letters of Reginevich’s and Herasimenka’s surnames. They were originally planning to commercialize silicon heterojunction solar cell technology Herasimenka and Reginevich have developed, but found greater potential out of this world.

Over the past two years, the Regher Solar team has been redesigning their solar cells for use in space and working out the manufacturing kinks to great success.

Building off of an initial Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grant from the U.S. Air Force in 2018, Regher Solar attracted additional SBIR funds from NASA and the National Science Foundation. The SBIR grant program is highly competitive and encourages businesses to conduct research and development for commercialization.

“The grant from NASA is looking into the future and explores how very-large-scale solar arrays can be built in space,” Herasimenka said.

Regher’s technology, if successful, can provide affordable, lightweight, space-tolerant solar panels.

But the big question is how to deploy them in space. So far, the largest solar array ever used in space is installed on the International Space Station, or ISS. The ISS solar array generates power up to 120 kilowatts and required several shuttle missions to install.

How can it be possible to build 10 megawatt (10,000 kilowatt) or even 100 megawatt (100,000 kilowatt) solar arrays in space? Herasimenka says Regher Solar’s answer is to use robots for solar array construction and assembly.

In collaboration with the company Made In Space, Regher Solar was awarded an SBIR contract from NASA to demonstrate the feasibility of this idea. Made In Space is famous for bringing a 3D printer to the ISS. At present, the company is testing its additive manufacturing system, Archinaut One, which will be capable of building large-scale structures in space.

The startup also earned a coveted spot in the Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator, a Los Angeles-based program to foster next-generation space technologies and new business models for those technologies. Techstars, a worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs, partnered with aerospace innovation catalyst Starburst to form the accelerator. Regher Solar was one of 10 startups in the inaugural 2019 Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator class.

Regher Solar has attracted industry attention as well, notably from SolAero Technologies, the leading producer of space solar cells and solar panels.

At the Techstars Demo Day, the culmination of Regher Solar’s time in the Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator, Herasimenka announced a partnership with SolAero Technologies to help further develop manufacturing processes for their ultrathin silicon solar cells.

“(The push for satellite constellations) has created a demand for space power that SolAero and its industry peers cannot meet,” Ken Steele, director of integrated products at SolAero Technologies, said at a recent presentation at the Techstars Demo Day in October. “Regher Solar has the technology and the processing capability to meet the performance demand and the cost targets that the constellation market is demanding.”

Herasimenka most recently earned one of five Solar Energy Technologies Office, or SETO, awards won by ASU in 2019 to fund work to advance photovoltaic research and development. The $1.8 million award will help Herasimenka and his ASU colleagues to increase solar manufacturing capabilities in the U.S. by developing a PV Innovation Foundry — a new collaborative facility to help industry and academic users test their ideas on a pilot scale.

However, Regher Solar is procuring funding for more than research and development. The company has also signed a memorandum of understanding to deliver 17 megawatts of thin silicon solar cells for a private space company’s satellite constellation project by 2023.

“This is really, really huge if you think about it,” Herasimenka said. “It’s eight times more energy than the entire space solar industry would be able to deliver by that time, not even talking about 90% cost savings we can bring to our customers.”

Herasimenka is excited about the future of Regher Solar and the capabilities that a new generation of solar cell technology can bring to satellites, as well as to the future of in-orbit manufacturing and even moon and Mars bases.

“Regher is really on the path to power the new space economy,” he said.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering