What are solar panels?
Solar panels are devices that convert light into electricity. They are called "solar" panels because most of the time, the most powerful source of light available is the Sun, called Sol by astronomers. Some scientists call them photovoltaics which means, basically, "light-electricity."
A solar panel is a collection of solar cells. Lots of small solar cells spread over a large area can work together to provide enough power to be useful. The more light that hits a cell, the more electricity it produces, so spacecraft are usually designed with solar panels that can always be pointed at the Sun even as the rest of the body of the spacecraft moves around, much as a tank turret can be aimed independently of where the tank is going.
How efficient are solar panels?
DS1's solar panels convert 22% of their available energy into electrical power. This may not sound very good, but it is much better than most solar panels. Most solar panels on people's houses, for example, are fairly inefficient. Less than 14% of the energy that reaches them will be converted to electricity. DS1's panels are so efficient, in fact, that unless the ion propulsion drive is running, DS1 is producing far more power than it needs.
Do solar panels wear out?
Solar panels are very hardy. Compared to alternative power sources, they wear out very slowly. Their effectiveness decreases around 1 to 2 percent a year. This means after a five year mission (boldly going where no probe has gone before), the solar panels will still be making more than 90% of what they made at the beginning of the mission (as long as they haven't gotten farther away from the Sun).
There are two major dangers to solar panels in space besides regular wear-and-tear:
Solar flares, which are unpredictable severe bouts of radiation that can damage the electronics inside the panels.
Micrometeorites, which are tiny, gravel-sized bits of rock and other space junk floating in space can scratch or crack solar panels. The solar concentrator as well as a thick layer of glass protect the solar panels from these.
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