Test engineer Laurence Levan is bathed in an intense green glow from powerful ultraviolet lamps simulating the unfiltered sunlight of space within a test chamber – the lamplight being in fact blue, but filtered through yellow screens to block the harmful ultraviolet rays.
This is the CROSS1 VUV-UV high vacuum chamber at work, based in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratories at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
The facility is used to recreate the space environment by attaining space-quality vacuum, while subjecting the test item to temperature extremes – ranging from -150°C to +400°C or higher – and exposing it to simulate ultraviolet solar radiation, up to 13 times the sunlight experienced by satellites in Earth orbit.
Typically, such high-intensity radiation is used to perform lifetime testing, artificially ageing the test material to gain insight into how they will perform across a mission’s entire lifetime. In a couple of cases, there are indeed space missions that will have to endure comparable conditions for real.
The facility has recently been used for screening and qualifying various materials for ESA’s 2015 BepiColombo mission to Mercury, as well as Solar Orbiter, which will venture even closer to the Sun after its 2017 launch.
The materials being tested include solar cells, insulating white ceramics to cover the high-gain antenna that will return mission data back to Earth and high-performance thermal control material, such as specially tailored multilayer insulation and Nextel ceramic blankets.