Thin Film in Outer Space

Innovation in satellite shielding improves capability and lowers cost

5 Ratings

Imagine you have just lost a major space satellite needed for a critical intelligence operation. It would typically take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to replace, crippling intelligence activities in need of crucial support. ITN/MicroSat’s compact and efficient satellite technology enables extremely rapid assembly and launch integration of a small "gap filler" satellite, ready for service and launch in just a matter of days.


Each gram of mass added to a satellite brings with it an enormous expense. Traditional satellite design requires separate batteries and electronics, metal housings for equipment and instruments, and heavy solar panels, all adding to the huge cost of building and launching the satellite. ITN’s satellite technology creates lightweight and small, multifunctional devices, enabling real-time responsive space capability through small tactical launch vehicles.


Traditional satellites can take years to design, build, and launch. ITN's thin-film innovations mean that less expensive, launch-ready spacecraft can be created and tested within 15 months. Without ITN’s "responsive space" innovations, satellites would continue to be expensive and mass inefficient. ITN’s creations replace several traditional satellite components, reducing weight and size. Their technologies include a number of multifunctional materials, thin film solar arrays, a lightweight composite chassis, and superior thin-film batteries to reduce complexity and expense in satellite design.


ITN’s fundamental research in thin-film processes and material technologies provided the groundwork for the innovations that were achieved through DOD-funded research. By incorporating lessons learned from solar array development, composite structure design, battery development–and then combining multiple ideas to create multifunctional materials (like batteries incorporated directly into the electronics)–ITN followed a logical and step-by-step path toward achieving the lightest and most efficient satellites possible. These solutions were fully implemented into the AFRL TacSat2 program (AKA Roadrunner), which ITN’s spinoff, MicroSat Systems, built and launched in 2005.

"The TacSat2 satellite achieved an unprecedented payload/mass fraction of almost 60% due to the use of lightweight composites for the structure and thin-film solar arrays for power generation. " — John Roth


ITN's satellite innovations are not a single technology, but rather a rethinking of the materials used throughout every aspect of a satellite's design. To create easy-to-build and lightweight spacecraft, ITN leveraged their expertise in materials science across multiple disciplines. Their significant reduction in satellite size and weight is the result of using multiple innovations in concert, such as multifunctional composite structures (replacing traditional metals and integrating electronic components directly into structural elements), thin and flexible solar arrays based on ITN’s research in photovoltaic chemistry and experience in depositing complex thin-film coatings onto flexible substrates, and even novel ways of folding components (antennas, power panels, etc.) that could be collapsed at launch and deployed in orbit. ITN’s proprietary system for sensor-based intelligent process control enabled real-time process adjustments during fabrication to minimize waste and reduce manufacturing time. This was combined with an extensive program of testing and computer modeling to ensure that components and systems worked as designed, keeping costs low and schedules met.


The miniaturization and weight reduction of satellites and their subsystems components enables tactical, response battlefield deployment of much needed assets for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, bringing real-time battlefield knowledge directly to the warfighter.

ITN’s initial TechSat 21 contract enabled the company to further develop satellite design and production capability, which provided the infrastructure and personnel base to successfully bid on additional spacecraft contracts.

The success experienced through this project directly led to establishment of MicroSat Systems, Inc. as a spinoff company that eventually became part of Sierra Nevada Corporation, where it continues to function as a competitive small satellite provider.

This project increased US competition by establishing a small, lean, and hungry company to compete with established giants in the aerospace industry.

ITN Energy Systems, Inc.

8130 Shaffer Parkway, Littleton, CO 80127-4107

Targeting high growth clean energy & emerging technologies, ITN leverages its outstanding R&D; and commercialization environment to accelerate innovation and time-to-market, and to mature advanced technology into commercially viable businesses.

Mohan Misra Mohan Misra

Mohan Misra

Founder and CEO, MicroSat Systems, Inc. as well as Founder and CEO, ITN Energy Systems, Inc.

Ashutosh (Ashu) Misra Ashutosh (Ashu) Misra

Ashutosh (Ashu) Misra

Executive Vice President, Business Development ITN Energy Systems, Inc.


Lightweight composite spacecraft shielding





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