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N° 64–2001: Space-based solar racing car on starting grid

9 November 2001

On 18 November, 43 racing cars will be jostling for position at the start of the 6th World Solar Challenge in Darwin, Australia. Among them, a slick student-built machine that profits from space technology, supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Alpha Centauri team and their car Nuna are amongst the favourites.

Unlike Formula-1 races, this start will produce very little noise and smoke since all cars are solar powered. The World Solar Challenge is intended to motivate research and development into harnessing solar energy for future transport needs. It covers 3010 km from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south of Australia, a distance the Alpha Centauri Team hopes to cover in a record time of just four days.

The streamlined machine is built by eight Dutch students from the universities of Delft and Amsterdam. It uses advanced space technology, provided to the team via ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme, enabling the car to reach a theoretical top speed of over 160 km per hour.

The aerodynamically optimized outer shell consists of space-age plastics to keep it light and strong. The main body is made from carbon fibre, reinforced with Kevlar, a material used in satellites, but nowadays also in high performance equipment like bulletproof vests.

The car’s shell is covered with the best dual junction and triple junction gallium-arsenide solar cells, developed for satellites. These cells have an efficiency of about 24%. ESA will test these cells in space in early 2003, when the technology-demonstrating SMART-1 mission is launched to the Moon.

Nuna also carries Maximum Power Point Trackers, small devices that guarantee an optimal balance between power from the battery and the solar cells, even in less favourable situations like shade and cloud. Many satellites carry these devices, for instance ESA's Rosetta mission to comet Wirtanen.

A small strip of solar cells on the side of the car is very special for a different reason: the communication equipment is powered by a strip of cells that originally belonged to the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. These cells were part of a large solar array, retrieved by ESA astronaut Claude Nicollier and brought back to Earth in 1993 with a Space Shuttle. They have been donated to the Alpha Centauri Team as a special mascot.

“If Nuna wins the race, it will be due in part to the use of space technology” explained Ramon Martinez, a mechanical engineering student at the Technical University of Delft and leader of the Alpha Centauri Team. But much more important, due to the hard work and dedication of a group of students, making a dream come true!”

To fulfil their mission, the student team has collected an impressive line-up of supporters. ESA not only provided them with engineering support via its Technology Transfer Programme but also with general support via the Education Office, headed by former ESA astronaut Wubbo Ockels, who is also adviser to the team. Dutch energy company Nuon is the main sponsor, and the association of plastic producers APME and the Technical University of Delft are strongly supporting the team.

After the mission an extensive tour is planned to visit schools in the Member States of ESA. This educational programme will emphasize the value of space technology for a more sustainable world and show in a tangible manner how the dreams of youngsters can become reality.

For more information, please contact:

World Solar Challenge contact: (press inquiries)
Mr Mike Drewer or Ms Kate Martin
email: or
telephone +61 8 8363 3088
fax + 61 8 8362 2256

Contact Alpha Centauri Team:
Ms Rosalie Puiman
Telephone + 61 4 38207282

ESA Technology Transfer Programme
Mr Pierre Brisson
telephone + 31 71 565 4929

ESA Education Office
Mr. Wubbo Ockels
Telephone: + 31 71 565 5456