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Thermal Engineering in Space

How an understanding of conduction, convection and radiation can help us get to Mars
In June 2003 a British-led mission started out for Mars. Beagle 2, carried by the European Space Agencys Mars Express, will reach Mars in December 2003. During its long journey the components aboard will have to undergo the extremes of the interplanetary environment. The loss of heat into space and the direct heating of the Sun must be balanced to give the optimum on-board temperature. What is more, due to the high cost of transporting equipment to Mars, the mass of any solution must be kept as low as possible. One of the several methods utilised to accomplish this is a surprisingly simple blanket, which achieves its purpose using principles similar to the familiar vacuum or Thermos flask. Below are some suggestions based on this technology for the planning of an alternative to the usual lessons demonstrating methods of insulation. Beagle 2

Picture: ESA Learning Objectives National Curriculum Sc4 (Physical Processes): Knowledge, skills and understanding Energy resources and energy transfer 5a. Pupils should be taught how insulation is used to reduce transfer of energy from hotter to colder objects

The Earth and beyond 4e. Pupils should be taught about the search for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. Breadth of study 1a. During the key stage, pupils should be taught the knowledge, skills and understanding through considering ways in which science is applied in technological developments. National Curriculum Online, QCA ( HMSO) Placing the Lesson in a Scheme of Work This could be used as a demonstration for a far more interesting alternative to the standard, single period Thermos flask lesson or, equipment permitting, could be turned into a small investigation. Equipment and Materials Required Minimum: Aluminium foil or Space Blanket / Survival Blanket material (closer to original and obtainable from outdoors shops). Netting material the original looks like the netting used to keep birds off vegetables (or contain oranges) but net curtain material, loose weave sacking or similar would do the job. Kilogram metal blocks drilled to take heaters and measuring equipment. Temperature measuring equipment, eg data logger. As above, using data logging equipment with several temperature probes (Data Harvest equipment used in trial). Vacuum facilities, eg type of bell jar with electrical inputs / rotary vacuum pump set-up often used to demonstrate the effect of a vacuum on the sound of an electric bell.


Construction of the MLI Blanket The multiplayer insulation (MLI ) blanket is very simple in concept but many important (and extremely expensive) missions have relied on it for efficient but light insulation. For example:
CHASE (Spacelab II) XRT (Spacelab II) WFC (ROSAT) ATSR (ERS-1) JET-X (S-RG) CDS (SOHO)

EPIC (XMM) VIRTIS (Rosetta) GIADA (Rosetta) Rosetta Lander Beagle 2 (Mars Express) ASPERA GERB

The blanket consists of layers of a silvered material similar to that used in survival blankets, alternated with layers of a polyamide netting to give separation. In situations where the surface may be exposed to radiant heat that would melt the netting, the outer layers may have the separating netting omitted, being crumpled instead to avoid close contact. For Beagle 2, the number of foil layers was limited to five due to weight constraints, but many more are sometimes used. Holes punctured through the foil allow the venting of air to space, avoiding ballooning and ensuring a vacuum between the layers. The whole assembly may be secured by staples or taped round the edges and attached to the space vehicle by studs. It is assembled under highly sterile conditions to avoid contamination and, due to the large sums of money invested in space exploration, subjected to rigorous quality control and testing procedures.



The principles by which this works are identical to those of a household vacuum flask. Silvered foil surface minimise radiant heat loss and reflects back infra-red. Separation of foil layers eliminates heat transfer by direct conduction. Vacuum eliminates heat transfer by conduction through air layer and by convection within it. Multiple layers will provide a cumulative effect.

Note: the blanket will work quite well without a vacuum, as air is a good insulator itself.

The construction of a similar blanket may be attempted using a little creativity in the blanket design and the selection of materials, eg using survival blanket material or aluminium foil, garden netting or any loose weave material, etc. Tape the edges with PVC tape to hold everything together and pierce the layers many times with a needle. If there is enough equipment for student groups to do the experiment, they could also construct the blanket themselves. MLI materials ready for use MLI blanket in place for testing

Pictures: Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Constructing a Lesson Assuming the principles of heat transfer have been taught in previous lessons this lesson could allow the discussion and demonstration of the science in an interesting and topical technological application. There is also the opportunity to bring in ICT and other areas of the National Curriculum such as the search for extraterrestrial life. Depending on the equipment available comparative measurements can be made using no insulation and various blankets with different number of layers with or without separating netting between the foil layers with un-silvered layers (use alternative material or coat with soot) with alternative types of insulation

If alternative types of insulation are be included and their suitability for space could be discussed. This could be achieved in a number of ways, but a suggested method is to wrap the standard kilogram metal blocks used for typical school insulation experiments in the different insulations and plot cooling curves. Use immersion heaters to provide the initial heating. The Data Harvest equipment used to trial this can cope with several cooling curves simultaneously. The hardest situation to simulate is a vacuum. This can be achieved in the type of bell jar and vacuum pump set-up used to demonstrate an electric bell in a vacuum. Electrical connections can be fed though a large rubber

bung (if the jar design permits), as can the Data Harvest style of temperature sensor. Teachers might also like to experiment with radiant heaters. The Space Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Group The Space Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Group and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory have been involved in the design of Beagle 2 from the beginning. Their expertise has previously been used on many important spacecraft. Ten mechanical people specialise in the instrumentation and structural tasks and five thermal people are responsible for thermal control work. Their responsibilities include design, mathematical modelling and physical testing and the actual fitting of hardware. The MLI blanket described above, one the most widely used method of passive thermal control, is designed, constructed, tested and fitted by the group. Staff have come to the group by many routes, looking for satisfying careers. For example, one of the members of the group involved with the project is Jane Fereday. After graduating in Maths at Oxford Jayne worked in the world of tax and finance for two years, but wanted to do something more interesting. A Masters in Spacecraft Engineering at Cranfield University (a typical route into this field) led to a job with the Space Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Group as a Spacecraft Thermal Engineer. Over the last five years she has specialised in the thermal design of space instruments and also some ground based telescopes. Further Information Many thanks to Jayne Fereday and Bryan Shaughnessy of the Space Science and Technology Department, The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, for taking the time to show me around. However, any mistakes you might spot above are, of course, my own. PW.