By Dirk Lorenzen
2021 begins as a year of Mars. Although our red planetary neighbor isn't as prominent as it was last autumn, it is still noticeable with its characteristic reddish color in the evening sky until the end of April. In early March, Mars shines close to the star cluster Pleiades in the constellation Taurus.
A Landing Like a James Bond Movie<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIwMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MDU5MDQ2Nn0.aLE-s5r9YhoJs40XbavhUwUXdY97iykXqo0OO0S5eso/img.jpg?width=980" id="19fa1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c758d3cd0d3e11fbd5290bb95da86396" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="700" data-height="394" />
NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover (shown in artist's illustration) is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Ingenuity, a technology experiment, will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance will arrive at Mars' Jezero Crater with Ingenuity attached to its belly. NASA<p>The highlight of this year's Mars exploration is the landing of the NASA rover "Perseverance" on February 18. Once the spacecraft enters the atmosphere it will be slowed down by friction. The heat shield will surpass 1,000 degrees Celsius. Later, parachutes will deploy to slow it down even more. Roughly two kilometers above the planet's surface, a sky crane comes into play. Four thrusters keep the crane properly oriented.</p><p><span></span>The rover is connected to the crane by nylon tethers. Upon approach of Mars' surface, the sky crane will lower Perseverance down about 7 meters. Once the rover has touched down, the tethers are cut and the sky crane flies off to land somewhere else on the surface.</p><p>Entry, descent and landing takes just seven minutes – the so-called seven minutes of terror. The flight team can't interact with the spacecraft on Mars. Experts have to sit and watch what's happening more than 200 million kilometers away. Radio signals from the spacecraft need about 11 minutes to travel in one direction. When the control center in Pasadena, California receives the message that entry has begun, Perseverance will already be on the ground. There is only one chance for a smooth landing. Any error could mean the mission is lost. The audacious sky crane maneuver would be a great feat in any action movie. But NASA knows how to do it – the Curiosity rover landed with a sky crane in 2012.</p>
Life on Mars?<p>Scientists want to use Perseverance to explore whether there is or ever has been life on Mars. Today the planet is a hostile environment – dry and cold with no magnetic field shielding the harsh radiation from space. Life as we know it can't survive on the Martian surface right now. But billions of years ago, Mars was hotter and wetter and had a shield against radiation. So it is at least plausible that simple microbes developed there. Maybe they live in the soil now, one or two meters below the surface. Perseverance will collect samples to find out. A future mission by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will pick up the samples and return them to Earth. But this won't happen before 2030.</p>
The Long Wait for James Webb<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIxMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2OTM1MDUzNX0.0Jmw-vIz6zuOa7eNsVX2oVzc0L6AFp05cAs4QbzdK6c/img.jpg?width=980" id="9cf3e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d46a2f73a4a2e32a9775087750c92431" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="700" data-height="394" />
The Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting the Earth for more than 30 years. NASA<p>The Hubble Space Telescope's images of planets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies are legendary. The cosmic eye, launched in 1990, is likely to fail towards the end of this decade. The James Webb Space Telescope will be its successor. It is scheduled to launch on October 31 with a European Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.</p><p><span></span>The launch date is about 14 years later than planned when the project began in 1997. At almost $10 billion (€8.2 billion), the telescope is more than ten times as expensive as originally conceived. Its namesake James Webb was the NASA administrator during the height of the Apollo project in the 1960s.</p><p>Astronomers expect completely new insights from James Webb Telescope images, such as how the universe came into being, how it developed and how galaxies, stars and planets are formed. The instrument will observe the earliest childhood of the cosmos and photograph objects that already existed in the universe 200 to 300 million years after the Big Bang. James Webb, as the experts call the telescope for short, may even provide information about possibly inhabited exoplanets – planets like ours orbiting stars other than the Sun. </p>
A Sensitive German Camera<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTE0MzY3Mn0.o3aPaW5t0MFkEgeJl0HQ1V9lz6WDxKVGXyYWvpfoYyk/img.jpg?width=980" id="6ff49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="187458ae2291c2aeb3bd36bc1ed777e0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="985" data-height="657" />
The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and unitized pallet structures that will fold up around the telescope for launch. NASA<p>The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is 6.5 meters in diameter and consists of 18 hexagonal segments. The entire instrument unfolds in 178 steps over a period of several months. Only then – probably in the spring of 2022 – will we see its first images.</p><p>Many communication or reconnaissance satellites only unfold in space. However, not every micrometer is as important as with this telescope. </p><p>NIRSpec, one of the four cameras on board, was built at Airbus in Ottobrunn near Munich. It is made of an unusual material: ceramic. Both the basic structure and the mirrors are made of this very light, hard and extremely temperature-insensitive material. With good reason – the large camera has to withstand a lot in space. It is cooled to around -250 degrees Celsius in order to register the weak infrared or thermal radiation from the depths of space. Plastic or metal bend and lead to blurred images. Ceramic, on the other hand, remains in perfect shape.</p><p>The NIRSpec instrument will examine, among other things, emerging stars and distant galaxies. The ceramic camera is incredibly sensitive – it could register the heat radiation from a burning cigarette on the Moon. Thanks to this precision, astronomers will get completely new insights into the cosmos with the James Webb Telescope and NIRSpec.</p>
No Flight to the Moon but to the ISS<p>It's not very likely that the Orion spacecraft from NASA and ESA will start its maiden voyage to the Moon before the end of 2021. As part of the Artemis-1 mission, it will remain in space for four weeks and will orbit the Moon for a few days. There will be no crew on board for the first flight, but two dummies from the German Aerospace Center, which use thousands of sensors to measure the conditions that human beings would be exposed to. The Orion capsule comes from NASA, while the ESA supplies the service module. The service module, which is being built by Airbus in Bremen, provides propulsion, navigation, altitude control and the supply of air, water and fuel. After problems with an engine test in mid-January, the new NASA large rocket Space Launch System (SLS), with which Orion is supposed to be launched, is unlikely to be operational until early 2022.</p><p><span></span>Matthias Maurer from Saarland is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in October. The flight will be in a Crew Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral. Maurer will live and work in the orbital outpost for six months. He is currently training to work on numerous scientific experiments. Maurer will be the twelfth German in space.</p><p>So far, Germany has only sent men into space. In mid-March, ESA will start the next application process for astronauts. A few years ago, the private initiative Die Astronautin ("She is an astronaut") showed that there are numerous excellent female applicants.</p>
Two Lunar Eclipses<p>Even if there is no flight to the Moon, sky fans are looking forward to two eclipses this year. On May 26, there will be a lunar eclipse between 9:45 and 12:53 UTC. From 11:10 to 11:28 UTC, the Moon will be completely in the Earth's shadow. It can then only be seen in a copper-red light. This is sunlight that is directed into the Earth's shadow by the Earth's atmosphere – reddish, like the sky at sunset. This eclipse can be observed throughout the Pacific, and will be best viewed in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Antarctica. In Europe, the Moon will be below the horizon and therefore the eclipse will not be visible.</p><p>This also the case for the partial lunar eclipse on November 19. From 07:18 to 10:47 UTC, the Moon will be partly in the shadow of the Earth. In the middle of the eclipse (around 9:03 UTC) 98% of the Moon will be eclipsed. The spectacle will be best seen in North America, Greenland, East Asia and much of the Pacific, such as Hawaii and New Zealand.</p>
Two Solar Eclipses: One Annular, One Total<p><span>In 2021, the Moon will pass right in front of the sun, twice. On June 10, the moon will be nearly in the furthest point of its elliptical orbit around Earth. So it will be too small to cover the sun completely. In the middle of this eclipse, an annulus of the sun will remain visible. The sun's ring of fire appears between 9:55 and 11:28 UTC for a maximum of four minutes – but it will only be visible in the very sparsely populated areas of northeast Canada, northwestern Greenland, the North Pole and the far east of Siberia.</span></p><p>In the North Atlantic, Europe and large parts of Russia, an eclipse will be seen at least partially. Between 8:12 and 13:11 UTC, the Sun will appear like a cookie that has been bitten into as the Moon covers parts of the bright disk. In some places, the eclipse will last about two hours. In Central Europe, a maximum of one-fifth of the sun will be covered.</p>
Dark Sun Over Antarctica<p>The celestial event of the year will be a total solar eclipse on December 4. In a 400-kilometer-wide strip, the New Moon will cover the sun completely. For a maximum of one minute and 54 seconds, day will turn to night. For that short time, the brightest stars can be seen in the sky and the flaming solar corona can be seen around the dark disc of the Moon.</p><p><span></span>Unfortunately, hardly anyone will get to see this cosmic spectacle because the strip of totality only runs through the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic. From 7:03 to 8:04 UTC the umbra of the Moon moves across the Earth's surface – and perhaps some ships' crews will enjoy the solar corona.</p><p>Only during the few minutes of totality is it possible to look safely at the Sun with the naked eye. During the partial phase or in the case of an annular eclipse, suitable protective goggles are necessary to watch the spectacle. Normal sunglasses are not safe. Looking unprotected into the sun can lead to severe eye damage or even blindness.</p>
Two Giant Planets in Northern Summer and Southern Winter<p>Venus, our other neighboring planet, will be behind the sun on March 26. It is not visible for the first few months of the year. From the end of April through Christmas, it will be visible as an evening star in the sky after sunset. The planet, shrouded in dense clouds, is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. The best visibility will be from September to December.</p><p>The giant planet Jupiter is in its best position of the year on August 20. It then shines in the constellation Capricorn, only disappearing from the evening sky at the beginning of next year. The ringed planet Saturn is also in the constellation Capricorn and can be observed particularly well on August 2. </p><p>Jupiter and Saturn are the stars of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and those of the long winter nights in the Southern Hemisphere. They are in the same area of the sky, almost forming a double star with Jupiter being the brighter of the two.</p>
Shooting Stars in August and December<p>There are certain periods when the Earth crosses the orbital path of a comet and shooting stars are much more likely than on other nights. Many small stones and dust particles are scattered on comet orbits, which light up the Earth's atmosphere for a moment when they enter.</p><p>The Perseids are particularly promising: August 9-13, a few dozen meteors (the technical term for shooting stars) will scurry across the sky per hour. The traces of light will seem to come from the constellation Perseus, near the striking celestial W of Cassiopeia. The Geminids – meteors coming from the constellation Gemini – will be similarly exciting with up to 100 shooting stars per hour, December 10-15.</p>
- What 21 Stars Reveal About the Universe - EcoWatch ›
- Earth Is Spinning Faster Than Ever - EcoWatch ›
- Artemis, Orion and the Quest to Get Humans to the Moon Again - EcoWatch ›
- Three Mars Missions Arriving in February 2021 - EcoWatch ›
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Residential solar energy companies are helping more and more homeowners upgrade their properties to clean energy sources. Solar energy companies can equip you with the technology you need to harness the amazing power of the sun and reduce your need for fossil fuels. In this article, we'll review some of the most trustworthy providers and installers of solar power.
Our picks for the best solar companies
The first step in the process is researching some of the top companies in the solar industry. Here are the ones that stood out in our research.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
How we chose the best solar energy companies
How did we determine which solar power companies to recommend?
To begin with, we took a deep dive into each company's offerings, assessing them for the following criteria:
- Range of services offered
- Pricing/affordability and financing options
- Extent of service area
- Solar panel efficiency
- Temperature coefficient (e.g., how much high temperatures affect efficiency)
Additionally, we weighed membership and certification by professional associations like the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Affiliation with these groups is a good indicator that a solar energy company is reputable, and that their work is up to the highest standards within the industry.
The best solar energy companies
schmidt-z / Getty Images
With these criteria in mind, consider our picks for the best solar panel providers and installers in the industry.
If you're looking for a company that can walk you through the process of upgrading to solar power for an easy and convenient experience, look no further than to SunPower. The company offers:
- A "design studio" app, allowing you to safely and seamlessly design your own solar power system so that you can see a visual of what the finished product will look like once installed.
- Online calculators that make it easy for you to determine about how much electricity you will save once you upgrade to solar panels.
- Virtual consultations, allowing you to chat one-on-one with a solar power expert and to ask any questions you might have.
SunPower offers leading solar panels and energy storage technology to homeowners across dozens of states. And, they are also the preferred solar partner of many major businesses, including Walmart, FedEx, and Lowes.
Why buy: SunPower is a reliable solar energy company with an impressive tech portfolio and an extremely easy, intuitive process.
Upgrading to solar power can seem a little intimidating, but SunRun is out to bring simplicity. Their approach makes it extremely straightforward to select a custom solar energy plan for your household. Here's what to know about SunRun:
- They offer virtual consultations with solar energy experts, making it simple to explore your options and determine which solar set-up is right for your home energy needs.
- Each system they design is completely customized to address the customer's needs. SunRun doesn't do "one size fits all" solar equipment options.
- Their guarantee, the best in the industry, offers extraordinary peace of mind that your solar system will prove durable and reliable.
- SunRun also leads in terms of flexible financing options, making solar power accessible and affordable.
Why buy: With SunRun, the name of the game is customization. This is one of the best solar installation companies to turn to for solar power solutions that are truly made with you in mind.
You probably associate Tesla with their electric vehicles, but did you know that the company also produces high-efficiency solar panels? Depending on your needs and your budget, Tesla can hook you up with an array of solar panels or even a solar roof, making it easy to cut electricity costs and power your home via the sun's vital energy.
Some fast facts about choosing solar power from Tesla:
- They offer a price match guarantee and affordable financing options.
- Their advanced solar panel technology offers a low profile, a sleek style, and long-term durability.
- Home battery backups allow you to save solar power and then access it on demand, whenever you need it.
Why buy: Tesla offers sophisticated solar products for what the company claims is the lowest price of any national provider, which they back with a price-match guarantee. Plus, all of their solar panels come with a solid 25-year performance guarantee.
LG is another well-known tech company that is also a leader in solar energy. Some of their solar panels use a bifacial solar module that captures energy from two directions to increase their efficiency. While they are a solar panel manufacturer, they can also help you with the installation process by finding an LG Pro installer in your area.
- They offer an online "solar concierge" service that allows you to evaluate your home energy needs and to compare different options for going solar.
- LG offers a 25-year warranty, not only on their technology but also on the work their of their solar installers.
- They offer a range of solar panels and supporting products, and they supply you with plenty of information to make a fully informed choice.
Why buy: LG is a company that knows technological innovation. Their award-winning solar energy products are reliably efficient, well-priced, and designed for maximum efficiency.
Panasonic has one of the most impressive tech portfolios in the solar energy industry. Their products boast some of the highest conversion efficiency rates, along with the lowest degradation rates. And they back everything with a generous warranty.
Some additional reasons to choose Panasonic:
- They offer a range of solar panels to choose from. With Panasonic, you'll find that you have plenty of options.
- They also provide a lot of great online support and consumer education, ensuring you'll get the most out of your solar technology.
Why buy: Panasonic is a solar panel company with products that are tough to beat. Both their pricing and warranties are very appealing, and their HIT high-performance solar panels offer some of the best power conversion rates of any product.
Vivint is a company that offers a full spectrum of services, including solar power consultation, design, and installation. A few reasons why homeowners trust their solar power needs to the Vivint team:
- Everything Vivint does is customized. They tailor everything to fit your roof and to help you achieve your home energy goals.
- They make the entire process simple, handling all of the little details for you. This includes securing permits, filing the right paperwork, etc.
- They emphasize safety, using only the highest caliber of solar panels and backing everything with a world-class warranty.
Why buy: Vivint is noteworthy for their focus on customization, their commitment to safety, and their one-stop-shop solar power solutions. In addition to solar panel installation, they also offer other specialized technology, including solar-powered electric vehicle chargers.
Enphase is another company that stands out, both for their robust technology as well as for their commitment to customization. Their microinverter technology makes their solar system safer by reducing the likelihood of arc fault fires.
- They design their solar technology with safety in mind, including fire safeguards that other companies can't match.
- Their solar panels are built for durability and can hold up even through the most extreme kinds of weather.
- Enphase uses smart technology to update itself; all you need to do is connect it to your home Internet.
- They also have one of the best apps in the solar industry, making it simple to monitor your home energy use.
Why buy: Enphase is a company of innovators, and their solar portfolio has a lot to offer. Their system is also modular, meaning you can easily add more panels to your system as you need them.
This solar power provider has won recognition not just for their excellent technology, but also for their sincere commitment to sustainability and to ecological stewardship. And don't let the name throw you off: Though Canadian Solar is based in Canada, they provide solar power solutions in the U.S. and other countries.
Some additional facts about Canadian Solar:
- They offer a wide range of products, from energy converters to storage solutions.
- Their solar panels boast exceedingly high energy efficiency rates.
- Canadian Solar has won a number of awards for its first-class innovations, and one of their products even set a world record for conversion efficiency in 2020.
Why buy: This company has a proven track record of technological excellence, plus a real commitment to ecological stewardship. They also closely monitor their supply chain to ensure that no goods or materials used in their products come from prohibited forms of labor.
First Solar boasts an impressive track record of advocacy for solar power and for renewable energy sources. And, thankfully, they back their advocacy with some excellent solar technologies.
A few reasons to choose First Solar solar panels:
- Their technology offers an outstanding temperature coefficient, meaning they won't lose performance during high temperatures.
- Their solar cells are among the most reliable and most efficient in the clean energy sector.
- First Solar also offers a lot of post-purchase, post-installation help, as needed.
Why buy: First Solar is a great option for anyone who's serious about renewable energy, and who wants the best performance from their solar panels.
The biggest drawback to Go Solar is that, right now, their work is limited to just a few states. But if you happen to live in that part of the country, you're in luck. Go Solar's panels are uniquely calibrated to take advantage of the western region's abundant sunlight. Some additional reasons to pick Go Solar include:
- They offer free home solar assessments.
- They custom-design solar systems to meet the needs of your home.
- They have some of the most trusted installers in the solar power industry.
Why buy: For solar solutions that are tailored to the climate of the American West, definitely consider Go Solar. Plus, with their Give Solar International partnership, they give an equivalent solar panel system to a family in Uganda for each system sold.
How does a solar energy system work?
schmidt-z / Getty Images
As you explore the different options for embracing solar power, it may be helpful to have a baseline understanding of how solar energy systems actually function.
Generally speaking, solar energy systems involve solar panels installed on your roof. These panels absorb the sun's energy, storing it in what are known as photovoltaic cells. These cells convert the solar energy into direct current (DC) energy, then use an inverter to convert that DC energy into alternate current (AC) electricity. AC electricity is what you need to power all your home appliances.
It's important to note that, before you purchase solar panels, it's worthwhile to meet with a solar energy consultant who can tell you more about how many panels your home will require, and also to let you know how those panels should be ideally positioned on the roof.
One more note: If you're concerned about the affordability of solar power, it's important to remember that most solar energy companies provide a host of options, including flexible financing and solar lease options for a system rather than purchase it outright. As you talk with different solar energy companies, don't hesitate to inquire about these leasing and financing options.
Benefits of solar energy
Installing solar panels on your home can yield a number of benefits. Here are just a few examples.
One of the main reasons why homeowners choose to install solar cells is that it allows them to truly embrace clean energy sources. Rather than depend on fossil fuels and power plants, you can power your home with renewable energy that comes straight from the sun. This can be a highly effective way to minimize your environmental footprint.
Solar tax credits and rebates
There are a number of ways in which choosing renewable energy can save you money, starting with the fact that there are so many rebates and tax credits available. Essentially, both the federal government and many state governments want to encourage people to "go green" as much as possible, and they will make it worth your while by allowing you to claim these important tax incentives. Some utility companies also offer rebates that can help pay for the upfront costs of solar projects.
Lower electricity bills
Of course, embracing solar power will also help you save money by slashing your electricity bills. Most solar energy companies offer online calculators that allow you to see for yourself how much money you'll save over time, simply by changing to a renewable energy source. There is also an option called a power purchase agreement (PPA) that can allow you to host a solar or renewable energy system from a utility provider in exchange for lowered energy rates. If your solar panel system generates excess energy, the utility will then purchase that energy from you in the form of a net metering credit on your bill.
Make a smart choice about solar power
There are obviously a lot of perks to choosing solar energy for your home. And yet, it can also be a rather daunting process, simply because there are so many solar energy companies to choose from.
Using our guidelines and rankings, start doing your due diligence, seeking the solar power company that's right for you. Remember to look for a company that's well-regarded within the industry and get a consultation before you buy. Always be sure to ask some direct questions about the financing options that are available to you.
Josh Hurst is a journalist, critic, and essayist. He lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife and three sons. His writing on natural health, nutrition, and supplements has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.