Space cryocoolers are miniature refrigerators designed to cool sensitive spacecraft components to cryogenic temperatures. NASA programs in Earth and space science observe a wide range of phenomena, from atmospheric physics and chemistry to stellar birth. Many of the instruments require low-temperature refrigeration to enable use of cryogenic detector technologies that increase sensitivity, improve dynamic range, or to extend wavelength coverage. The largest utilization of coolers is currently in Earth Science instruments operating at temperatures near the boiling point of liquid Nitrogen at 77 K (-321°F). However, in support of studies of the origin of the universe and the search for planets around distant stars, interest has peaked in systems of low temperature refrigerators providing cooling down to 50 mK. This is just 0.05 degrees above absolute zero (-460°F). NASA's development of a 20 K cryocooler for the European Planck spacecraft and its 2002 Advanced Cryocooler Technology Development Program (ACTDP) for 6-18 K coolers are examples of the thrusts to provide low temperature cooling for this class of missions.
JPL Cryocooler Program Focus
Since the 1980s, JPL has had a strong interest in cryocoolers and has had a focused multi-year cryocooler development program. In the 1990s, the JPL cryocooler program included the procurement/development of pulse tube cryocoolers for the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) and Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer (TES) instruments, the conduct of extensive characterization testing of industry-developed cryocoolers, and the development and flight-testing of a wide variety of cryocooler integration technologies. Following those early activities, JPL focused on developing two 20 K sorption coolers for the Planck mission (launched in 2009) and on leading NASA's Advanced Cryocooler Technology Development Program (ACTDP) to develop 6 K cryocoolers for future NASA observatory missions, particularly the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Based on the TRW ACTDP cryocooler design concept, The 6K Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI) cooler is currently (2013) in the fabrication and qualification phase for JWST at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS) in Redondo Beach. Other recent JPL cryocooler missions include the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) mission, which uses an NGAS HEC cooler, and the CheMin instrument on the Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August 2012, and uses a Ricor K508 miniature Stirling cooler. To their credit, the coolers launched into space over the past several years are continuing to work flawlessly. For example, the AIRS instrument that was launched in May 2002, continues to operate 24/7 in orbit after 11 years.
Reviews of the overall JPL and NASA cryocooler programs are presented in the review papers at the head of the references section. Most of the cryocooler work at JPL has involved a combination of NASA and DoD sponsorship, and a close working relationship with the worldwide cryocooler development community. Links to the various JPL cryocooler activities are available through the above photo buttons and the entries on the left NavBar.
The JPL cryocooler program has been focused in four areas:
Dr. Ronald Ross
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Latest update: July 30, 2013