To infinity and beyond! Czechs developing thermal switch for missions to Mars, the Moon or deep space

Jakub Mašek

Special equipment now being developed at the Brno University of Technology should soon help ensure the success of deep space missions. The researchers have created a thermal switch that can regulate heat in probes or satellites. While that may sound simple, temperatures vary drastically in space. If a single electronic part overheats - or cools – it can jeopardise an entire mission.

Jakub Mašek of the university’s Institute of Aerospace Engineering tests working models in the facility’s so-called thermo-vacuum chamber. The chamber simulates the unforgiving conditions electronic equipment must endure in space, from 80 degrees Celsius to 150 degrees below freezing, and intense atmospheric pressure.

“The chamber is a 30 centimetre large tube. We are able to set the pressure up to 10-3 Pascal, which corresponds to the simulation of the space environment. And we can able to introduce carbon dioxide to simulate the Martian atmosphere.”

Since 2015, the Institute of Aerospace Engineering has been working on a producing a Miniaturized Heat Switch prototype directly for the European Space Agency that functions in simulated deep space and Martian atmosphere conditions. Jakub Mašek says such cooperation is uncommon.

“We have become a so-called prime contractor, which is a position where the university is the primary supplier and communicates directly with the European Space Agency. It is a relatively unique model for a Czech university.”

Source: VUT Brno

The research team in Brno are testing the environmental and mechanical testing of the Miniaturized Heat Switch, which is about 3x5 centimetres and weighs only about 150 grams. Yet it must be capable of autonomous and powerless temperature regulation, primarily for use in probes and satellites.

“This device [the thermo-vacuum chamber] was uniquely built to develop a heat switch. Every probe or satellite has electronics that must not overheat or freeze. There are exceptionally low and high temperatures in space, so electronics, batteries and so on need thermal insulation.

“The switch is a universal device for use on any satellite, probe or vehicle – whether on the Moon, on Mars. It has a piston comprised of a paraffin capsule. The paraffin is the material that melts and moves the piston.

“When it shifts, the contact is mechanically closed and the heat is dissipated. When the temperature drops below a certain level, the paraffin solidifies again, the piston moves back, the contact opens and the heat is no longer dissipated.”

Apart from the thermal switch, researchers at the Institute of Aerospace Engineering are now also working on developing a prototype circuit breaker. Despite the strict supervision of ESA, the Brno team also lets engineering students work on some aspects of development. Perhaps one day, the fruits of their labour will make it to Mars.

Source: VUT Brno
Authors: Brian Kenety , Barbora Kroutilíková
run audio