Application space

5 Ways Vacuum Contributes To Space Simulation & Research

November 17, 2020

Space technology and research would be nowhere without vacuum technology. But, with such complex work, it’s easy to lose sight of where (and how and why) vacuum plays such an important role. 

Vacuum systems for space simulation

Space begins at an altitude of more than 100kms above sea level, about 2,200 active satellites are orbiting Earth. 

Satellites are extremely valuable and incredibly difficult to replace. As repairs in space are near-impossible, intensive mandatory testing is done on Earth before launch. One of the most important tests to simulate is how the satellite functions in a vacuum. 

For example, satellites in geostationary orbit (‘GEO’, 35,800km height) deal with vacuum pressures in the low ultra-high vacuum range. These pressures have to be simulated through testing, and these tests are often done in conjunction with temperature cycle tests (thermal vacuum changer tests). What’s more, each component is also tested individually before integration into the system, which requires test chambers with 1–1000 m3 volumes.

Space simulation chamber

Vacuum systems for electrical propulsion 

Electrical propulsion helps satellites maintain, or change their orbit. Xenon ion thrusters accelerate ions, neutralize them and thrust them out in a jet to reposition the satellite. A key advantage over chemical propulsion systems is the ability to work with either a lower payload or longer operation time. The thrust can accelerate constantly, and for much longer time compared to the conventional chemical propulsion. This means travel to other planets, like Mars, may be on the cards in future.  

These ion thrusters have to be tested for longer periods of time in a vacuum chamber, under space conditions. Because electrical propulsion ion thrusters commonly use Xenon, vacuum testing must meet specific requirements — pumping Xenon isn’t easy! 

Vacuum technology for telescopes

Vacuum technology is used to make telescopes work. For example, it enables optical telescopes to achieve the highest precision. 

Space observatories, Hawaii

Large optical telescopes like Chile’s VLT have mirrors with diameters of up to 10m. These are coated in a silver layer which reflects up to 99% of infrared. Because these mirrors are exposed to the atmosphere, this layer degrades over time. Vacuum technology plays an essential part in coating and maintaining this layer in-situ, where one or several large cryopumps with pumping speeds of about 30,000 l/s are used for DC sputtering in large chambers at the observatories. Vacuum technology also plays a vital part in radio telescopes, where insulation vacuums keep the equipment safe.

Vacuum in fundamental research - gravitational wave detectors 

Gravitational wave detectors search for gravitational waves originating from special events in outer space, such as supernovae, neutron star collisions or black holes. Their goal is to prove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and his hypothesis on the space–time continuum. 

Vacuum application ensures the detectors sensing the deflection of large masses can operate with pinpoint precision — playing a part in vibration damping the large interferometers 500–4000 m long that pick up deflections estimated at just 10-18 meters! 

There are several gravitational wave detectors on Earth, including Virgo in Italy, LIGO in the USA and KAGRA in Japan. We may even have a detector in space, in future. 

Vacuum in fundamental research - zero gravity 

For research and technology development like fuel tanks, fuel valves and devices for spacecraft, more accurate compensations of gravity are required than what parabolic flights in airplanes can provide. Vacuum technology makes the drop towers (or drop tubes) that achieve these zero gravity states possible. 

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