Spacecraft are kept at their optimum operating temperature using thermal blankets. These are special wraps made out of layers of material and netting, known as multi-layer insulation (MLI), which reflect excess heat away from or toward the vital instruments on board.
A specialist team at RAL Space make thermal blankets for all shapes and sizes which means each individual piece of blanket is custom made.
Just like when cutting patterns for making clothes, or cutting out biscuits from dough, the process for making thermal blankets generates a lot of offcuts. Usually these are too small, or oddly shaped to be used for another piece of blanket.
Edward Jones, MLI Facility Manager at RAL Space said: “Our technicians do a great job of using the materials as efficiently as possible but there are always those odd bits that can't normally be used. It is great to have found a company that can put our waste to good use."
A small, Sheffield-based business, Chase Research Cryogenics Ltd, which designs and manufactures sub-Kelvin cryocoolers for scientific research applications approached RAL Space to find out if they could use some of these offcuts.
Simon Chase, Director of Chase Research Cryogenics said: “Working at the cutting edge of cool is an extremely challenging business that demands a whole raft of specialist materials, expertise and techniques. We are delighted to be able to make good use of the offcuts of super-quality MLI manufactured at RAL Space that would otherwise simply be wasted."
The cryocoolers made by Chase Research Cryogenics operate at 1 Kelvin (-272֯C) or below. However, the heat switches for the coolers are warmed to a balmy 20 Kelvin (-253 ֯C) when they are turned on. It's important to stop this heat from leaking out onto other nearby components.
The offcut MLI is being used to make tiny thermal blankets, just 3 by 3cm to keep the switches cool and keep the experiments running correctly.
Edward Jones added: “While the MLI team often makes large blankets for big missions, our expertise is in precision and we often make smaller blankets to very complex shapes for specialist scientific instruments; this is our first time seeing blankets this tiny though! It was great to have found a small company that can make better use for some of our offcuts. The first batch have used offcuts from blankets for MicroCARB, which is a joint UK Space Agency and French space agency mission to measure sources and sinks of carbon dioxide. It feels fitting that this step towards reducing our waste is linked to a mission which will be doing such an important job monitoring climate change!"