Lightweight Lockheed cryocooler will keep satellite innards on ice

Lockheed Martin says new device is lightest ever built to keep satellites operating efficiently

With an eye toward keeping satellites as sprightly as possible and their instruments functioning at optimum temperature levels, Lockheed Martin says it has developed a cooling system three-times lighter than its predecessor.

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 The Lockheed microcryocooler, weighs approximately 11 ounces which the company says will help drive down satellite expenses as it can cost  up to ten thousand dollars a pound for a satellite to orbit Earth.

Lockheed says the microcryocooler operates like a refrigerator, drawing heat out of sensor systems and delivering highly efficient cooling to small science satellites orbiting the Earth and on missions to the outer planets.

"Temperatures as low as -320 F are required for infrared instruments and the coolers must operate with minimum power and long lifetimes," said Ted Nast, Lockheed Martin fellow at the Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto in a statement. "That is why we constantly pursue a deeper understanding of the dynamic effects of temperature on cutting-edge technology and develop new systems, like our microcryocooler, that will perform successfully within the demands and constraints presented by severe, operational thermal environments."  

Lockheed Martin said it has flown more than 25 cryocoolers in space over the past 40 years - most recently on NASA's WISE and Gravity Probe-B missions. In addition to space applications, the microcryocooler can be utilized in tactical systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles and tanks.

NASA wrote in a white paper from 2006 that many of its space instruments require cryogenic refrigeration to improve dynamic range, extend wavelength coverage, or enable the use of advanced detectors to observe a wide range of phenomena-from crop dynamics to stellar birth. Reflecting the relative maturity of the technology at these temperatures, the largest utilization of coolers over the last fifteen years has been for instruments operating at medium to high cryogenic temperatures. For the future, important developments are focusing on the lower temperature range in support of studies of the origin of the Universe and the search for planets around distant stars.

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the still-in-development James Webb Space Telescope for example is expected to operate in the neighborhood of -400 F.

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