Diverse, Modern Research Labs for Space-based Solar Engineering at Caltech

CO Architects - Cal Tech SSPI Lab - Photography by Tom Bonner - Job ID 6244

By: Andrew Labov 

The SSPI project at Caltech is a highly successful example of how a WWII-era building, which had supported Cold War-era engineering research, was adapted to the needs of modern interdisciplinary research, merging satellite technology and sustainable energy systems.

Existing Building & Research

Built in 1940, the von Kármán Hydrodynamics Building at the California Institute of Technology has a 22-foot-deep basement originally containing a number of two-story tall water tunnels. Much like the wind tunnels located in the Aeronautics Building next door, these were used to develop ideal shapes for the hulls of submarines and other naval vessels from WWII through the Cold War. With the development of high-speed computer modeling, these large and expensive to operate pieces of apparatus were no longer needed, enabling Caltech to consider new uses for this unique space.


Upper portion of the original water tunnel apparatus.

New Research

In 2015, Caltech received a grant from Northrup Grumman funding its Space Solar Power Initiative.  SSPI will develop the scientific and technological innovations necessary to enable a space-based solar power system—consisting of thin-film, high-efficiency photovoltaics laminated onto ultralight fabric structures that, when deployed in space, will collect and transmit power back to earth using microwave energy—that ultimately will be capable of generating electric power at a cost comparable to that from fossil-fuel power plants.

CO Architects - Cal Tech SSPI Lab - Photography by Tom Bonner - Job ID 6244

High-bay Assembly Lab, the working center of the research suite.

“The Space Solar Power Initiative brings together electrical engineers, applied physicists, and aerospace engineers in the type of profound interdisciplinary collaboration that is seamlessly enhanced at a small place like Caltech. I believe it also demonstrates the value of industry and academic partnerships. We are working on extremely difficult problems that could eventually provide the world with new, and very cost-competitive technology for sustainable energy” – Ares Rosakis, Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the EAS division and the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering.


Energy engineering requires a diverse range of laboratory types including optics, high-bay and chemistry.

Multi-purpose Laboratories

The laboratory suite is designed for the particular needs of Professor Sergio Pellegrino, whose team is developing the deployable ultralight fabric structures that are integral to SSPI. The generous height of the existing space is well suited to his team’s diverse range of activities including:

  • Assembly Area: Forming the physical and functional center of the suite, this high-bay space is used for the final assembly of various components developed throughout the laboratory. Movable tables, light fixtures, and retractable electrical cord reels enable the space to be easily reconfigured for construction of large apparatus and structures.
  • Structures Integration Area: Organized around a sequence of activities transitioning from dirty to clean, it contains a variety of heat and noise generating equipment, including the first 5-axis laser cutter used in the United States. This linear space is located under an existing service mezzanine repurposed to house new offices for graduate students that are accessed from a new catwalk overlooking the Assembly Area.
  • Chemistry Laboratory: Located within an enclosed room to contain odors and noise from a fume hood, paint booth, and optical grinding equipment, its brightly painted enclosure has a sloped roof/ceiling that reflects daylight from existing upper level clerestory windows into the Assembly Area.
  • Optics Laboratory: A certified Class 100,000 (ISO 8) cleanroom for the development, fabrication and testing of electro-optical components has a full-height window with views into the Assembly Area. The lab features three bays with blackout curtains and overhead utility racks suspended above laser tables. The height of the existing space provided ample clearance above the ceiling for the installation and maintenance of the substantial amount of ductwork, filters and other utilities serving the cleanroom.
  • Conference & meeting: An 8-person conference room opening onto a common lobby/lounge with views to the Assembly Area will be shared with other research teams in the building, facilitating their collaboration.
CO Architects - Cal Tech SSPI Lab - Photography by Tom Bonner - Job ID 6244

Optics Laboratory: Full-height glass walls visually connect the various research activities.

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