Stirling cooler

What innovations does Thermal Control involve?

A wide range of thermal technologies for space has already been developed and research and development is an important sustaining effort which is required to improve the performance of thermal control systems and to answer to the needs of future challenging missions.

Cryogenic systems such as cryocoolers are an example of a particular important innovative aspect. They are an enabling technology, allowing Earth observation and Science satellites to be more effective. They are used on space instruments to cool down the detectors covering the complete frequency range and the optics of Infrared Instruments. On-board the ISS, cryogenic cooling is also used for long-term storage of samples.

Advanced heat transport systems are equally very important and more and more needed for on-going and future missions. Today’s satellites face challenges such as higher payload dissipation, increasing heat transport distance, denser packing of the on-board electronics resulting in the increasing need for satellite radiator area. As a result heat transfer based only on conduction and radiation phenomena is no longer sufficient to minimise the thermal gradient between the payload and the radiators. Transporting the heat by means of a flowing fluid within a hermetically sealed container, driven either by capillary forces (as e.g heat pipes or capillary pumped two-phase loops) or mechanical pumps, is therefore needed in order to respond to the described thermal control design challenges.

While reusable Thermal Protection Systems technologies are mainly focussed towards vehicles for multiple Earth-entries (reusable launch vehicles or transfer vehicles to ISS), atmospheric entry probes for exploration mission mostly depend on ablative thermal protection systems. On-going developments are driven in particular by the ESA's Future Launcher Preparatory Programme with the aim of an in-flight demonstration on the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV).

Developing a thermal control system requires the use of advanced design, analysis and testing methods, tools and facilities. Because space thermal engineering is a rather specific subject (harsh space environment, predominance of radiation, no natural convection), the thermal community requires dedicated engineering analysis tools such as ESARAD and ESATAN which are customised to support analysis and verification tasks through the whole development of the thermal control system.

Last update: 2 October 2012

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