The Large Space Test Chamber, a mammoth 8m diameter thermal vacuum chamber, which is a key piece of equipment for the National Satellite Test Facility
, was recently installed within the developing building structure at Harwell.
This is a significant milestone for the building and its safe arrival and installation has been a significant weight off many minds. At 98 tonnes, the sheer size of the chamber has presented a number of challenges. The timing of its installation relative to the overall build schedule was critical, to allow the remaining structure to be completed around it, but before that, its transportation from its manufacturer in Italy was a significant feat itself.
Personally, I had been waiting eagerly for all the details about its arrival. The arrival of lockdown, first in Italy and then in the UK, just as the chamber was about to start its journey, meant that the team had even more challenges to overcome, though some opportunities with quieter road traffic. For me lockdown meant a physical separation from those involved and missing out on the ad hoc corridor chats that no amount of Teams chats can quite overcome. Instead, I had to wait anxiously for the slower formal updates as each chamber section was successfully manoeuvred into position. Needless to say everything went according to plan, albeit with a few modifications along the way and the chamber is now safely in place.
It has subsequently struck me though that this feeling of isolation must be a common occurrence for scientists and engineers working on space programmes. Many spacecraft have a wide array of instruments on board and the teams that have developed them are forced to wait for an indefinite duration before they receive the first data. I would hope that one of the things that makes the wait easier to bear is knowing that both the instruments and the associated spacecraft has been thoroughly tested under representative conditions to validate its capabilities in the space environment. For me, this is why facilities like the NSTF are a core part of the development process, alongside launch itself.
The diversity of space missions undertaken means that the range of conditions a spacecraft could encounter is surprisingly varied, from high temperature near Sun environments to deep space where temperatures plummet, not to mention other elements such as charged particles and magnetic fields. Provision of representative testing facilities along with the expertise to conduct the testing is a specialist area in its own right, and at RAL Space we're proud to be able to offer our science and engineering colleagues some peace of mind as they anxiously await news from their instruments.
Installation of the LSTC is a key milestone for the NSTF and I for one am looking forward to the opportunity to see the full scale of the chamber for myself!
The Large Space Test Chamber being installed in the National Satellite Test Facility. Credit: STFC RAL Space
Middle image: Artist's impression of the Large Space Test Chamber. Credit: STFC RAL Space