NRL's Sodium Sulfur Battery Experiment Flies Aboard STS-87

1/30/1997 - 82-97r
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An experiment developed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) recently flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia, STS-87. The Sodium Sulfur Battery Experiment (NaSBE) was designed, built and tested at NRL's Naval Center for Space Technology under the sponsorship and request of the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Sodium sulfur (NaS) cells use molten sulfur and sodium electrodes with a solid ceramic electrolyte which conducts sodium ions. To operate, NaS cells must be heated to 350 degrees Celsius (662 degree F) to melt the sodium and sulfur and to increase the mobility of sodium ions through the electrolyte.

Scientists are testing the sodium sulfur battery cells' performance for possible future use in powering satellites. NaS battery cells have three times greater energy than the specific energy of nickel hydrogen (NiH2) batteries that are currently used to power satellites. "Thus for the same amount of energy storage, a NaS battery weighs 60% less than an equivalent NiH2 battery," explains NRL's Mr. Chris Garner, one of the principal investigators for the experiment. The NaS batteries offer a potential savings of money, since a lighter payload costs less to launch. And because the NaS batteries weigh less, they would also allow more payloads to be carried on each satellite.

The experiment launched four 40 ampere-hour cells, built by Eagle Picher in Joplin, Missouri. The cells were launched charged and at ambient temperature. On orbit, the cells were heated to 350 degrees Celsius. The cells were then discharged and charged in different regimes that simulated the operation of the batteries in geosynchronous and low earth orbit satellites. On the final test of the experiment, the cells were discharged to different states of charge and then cooled down to ambient temperature. Once they are returned to earth, the NaS cells will be subjected to a destructive physical analysis to study how the cells performed in zero gravity.

Experiment operations were conducted from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Payload Operation and Control Center. On orbit, the NaS cell performed as well or better than their performance on Earth. All phases of the experiment were successful, and the experiment was returned to NRL on December 23.

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