Micro cooling unit on the way to Mercury
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
NASA's recently lunched spacecraft to Mercury is carrying with it not only advanced scientific instruments to explore the tiny hot planet, but also a small piece of Israeli ingenuitya micro refrigerator that will keep the delicate equipment onboard the ship cool as it races ever closer to the sun.
On August 3 the NASA spaceship MESSENGER (ME rcury S urface, S pace En vironment, Ge ochemistry and R anging) blasted off to space on a 6.5 year mission to the planet Mercury aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force base in Florida. MESSENGER will be the first spacecraft to ever orbit the planet Mercury, one of the only remaining unexplored planets in our solar system. The only spaceship to ever get near Mercury was Mariner 10 who past by the planet 3 times some 30 years ago.
Mercury is the most extreme planet out of the four inner planets orbiting our sun. Being the smallest, the densest, the one with the oldest surface and the largest daily variations in surface temperature, makes it highly interesting for scientists. Understanding Mercury is thus crucial to developing a better understanding of how our own Earth formed, how it evolved, and how it interacts with the Sun. To develop this understanding, the MESSENGER mission, spacecraft, and science instruments are focused on answering some of the key questions that will allow us to understand Mercury as a planet, such as: Why is Mercury so dense? What is Mercurys geologic history? And what are the unusual materials at Mercury's poles?
In order to answer these questions the MESSENGER spaceship carries onboard a number of advanced scientific instruments. One of these is the Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (or GRNS) which will detect gamma rays and neutrons that are emitted by radioactive elements on Mercury's surface or by surface elements that have been stimulated by cosmic rays. It will be used to map the relative abundances of different elements and will help to determine if there is ice at Mercurys poles, which are never exposed to direct sunlight. Since the GRNS working temperature is around minus 200 degrees Celsius it needs a substantial amount of cooling, here enters RICOR - an Israeli company that specializes in manufacturing advanced refrigerating solutions.RICOR was founded in 1967 and entered the Cryogenic Coolers Industry in the beginning of the 1980's. From than on it advanced to become an industry leader in its field, producing sophisticated cooling solutions to both military and civilian thermal imaging applications. During the 90's the company expended and entered the space industry after supplying the refrigerating unit to the NASA Clementine spaceship lunched on January 1994 to explore the lunar poles. After the initial success RICOR participated in the manufacturing of parts to eight other space programs including some of NASA's mars missions.
The MESSENGER was more of a challenge to RICOR since the conditions the spaceship will undergo are of extreme nature. During its long voyage the ship will have to endure not only the harshness of space flight but also the scorching heat of the sun warming up the ship to more than 400 degrees Celsius. Although the MESSENGER is heavily protected by ceramic shielding it will still need an advanced cooling unit to bring the GRNS sensor to its work temperature of minus 200 Celsius. In order to do that RICOR developed a micro refrigerator that weights only 400 grams and operates with supreme efficiency so it can preserve the spaceship valuable power supply for more important tasks such as the operation of the scientific instrumentation and the high power communication antenna.
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