ESA Science Core Technology Development Success Story - Critical Cooling Technology Enabling Complex Science Missions [Aug/2022]
Development of long-life Joule Thomson cryocoolers, funded by ESA’s Science Core Technology programme, creates compact, performant and competitive European solutions, with terrestrial applications in quantum technologies. These technology developments are being undertaken by UK organisations: Science and Technology Facilities Council-Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (STFC-RAL), a UK-based scientific research and development institute that is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Honeywell, a global aerospace leader.
Cryocoolers are essential components in regulating the temperature of instruments and sensors onboard spacecraft to ensure optimised performance and mission lifetime. ESA helped fund the development of a 4K (kelvin) Joule-Thomson cryocooler for its PLANCK and HERSCHEL missions, based on the Oxford Stirling cooler technology. Now ESA is looking to build on these technology developments to equip its next generation of science missions with improved cryocoolers, meeting their stringent requirements. Therefore, the Core Technology Programme funded activities have been focused on developing solutions with no moving parts and relatively simple components, so that they can be reduced in size, meet the mission requirements, and be produced with additive manufacturing technologies.
Whilst the 4K JT-cooler, 2K JT-cooler and the 30K cooler are all still undergoing developments, some initial socio-economic benefits have been identified. Thanks to its leading position in cryocooler technology, especially with Joule-Thomson cryocoolers and certain Stirling coolers, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)-RAL and Honeywell have built partnerships within the broader industry that have helped the UK become a key actor in the wider cryocooler supply chain. Recognising that the UK has a strong cryogenic academic, science and business community, STFC commissioned a “Cryogenics Impact Report”. STFC’s engagement in cryogenics-related work brought wider benefits to society, including:
- Investing in national skills capabilities – with direct impacts such as building leading capabilities in cryogenics through growing research, technical and business skills, as well as transferrable skills, such as how space-related technologies (i.e. cryocoolers at STFCRAL and Honeywell) can be utilised in the aerospace and defence sectors.
- Fostering collaborations between research and industry including SMEs – through STFC and the British Cryogenics Cluster, there is a wide range of support through testing facilities, business incubation space, and coordination and networking events such as the Cryogenics Cluster Day hosted at STFC-RAL, bringing together industry and scientists.
- Championing local and regional economic development - cryogenics infrastructure has built up around STFC facilities, including STFC-RAL, with a variety of actors ranging from global corporations to niche expertise in industry and science. The combination of these stakeholders and infrastructure together provide a foundation for further business expansion and investment.
- Securing societal well-being and improving the public’s understanding of science – a key example of this being STFC-RAL’s cryocooler development for the Planck explorer mission, providing insight into complex science questions about the universe.
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This initiative is led by ESA’s Science Core Technology Programme. More information can be accessed at ESA - Science Core Technology Programme (CTP).