Shake, rattle and broil

Getting into space is akin to riding an extreme roller coaster in the middle of a cold snap followed by a heat wave. Rockets, their passengers and equipment must endure teeth rattling vibrations and temperature extremes ranging from 140 degrees Celsius to -140 degrees Celsius.

Left: Prof. Ben Quine gets ready to open the thermal-vacuum system

A new space instrumentation laboratory designed to reproduce the challenges of space flight officially opened on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at York’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS). The CRESS Space Instrumentation Laboratory (CSIL) enables scientists at York University to design, develop and test space hardware and prototypes. Equipment is shaken, rattled, broiled and frozen using state-of-the-art equipment – all in an attempt to mimic the extremes of space flight.

Why is testing important?

“Space is a very peculiar environment and it is different to being on Earth. That has a big impact on the equipment that goes into space,” said Ben Quine, professor of space engineering in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, during an overview of the new facility. “Things as simple as dry cell batteries require gravity to make them work. Equipment has to be specially adapted for space and the only way to ensure your equipment is going to work is to test it.”

Among the many pieces of equipment in CSIL, the new vibration test system and the thermal-vacuum test system are stars in the lab. The vibration test system is able to test space hardware and prototypes under the realistic vibration conditions incurred during a rocket launch. The system is run by software that includes a programmable vibration mode that can replay vibration sequences recorded during actual rocket flights in order to duplicate space launch conditions exactly.

Right: The vibration test system

“The vibration test system replicates the vibration involved in a chemical rocket launch. In order to be in space orbit, you need to achieve a minimum speed of six kilometres per second. These rockets are huge amounts of fuel with a very small payload on top and by the time you’ve burnt all the fuel, you are in orbit and it is a very violent effect,” said Quine. “The system allows us to place equipment up to about 200 kilograms which are then shaken at vibrations up to 50 times the force of gravity. It is really like a very large speaker system although the amplifier is 400 times more powerful.”

Left: PhD candidate Raj Seth checks the vibration test system

The new thermal-vacuum chamber is capable of replicating conditions in space including the extreme heat and cold experienced during space flight, and can cycle temperature between 140 degrees Celsius to -140 Celsius. The horizontal chamber, 1.5 metres in diameter, achieves this high vacuum through a combination of oil-less vacuum pumps and closed cycle helium cryopumps. A chamber shroud with liquid nitrogen circulation is included. The chamber pressure and temperature cycling is automatically controlled through a touch screen display system.

“After you’ve taken this very violent ride on a rocket and you’ve gotten into space, you have the space environment to deal with,” said Quine. “This is a harsh environment, one of its characteristics is that it is a very hard vacuum. The new thermal-vacuum chamber allows you to put objects up to one and a half metres by two metres in dimension into the chamber and test them in a vacuum.”

Such tests are important said Quine because in the ambient atmosphere of Earth, molecules have very little room to move around. In space, the opposite effect comes into play and molecules encounter no interference and in a cargo hold, they can bounce around with no interference and the protective effect is extinguished.

“The system allows researchers to put objects into the chamber on a thermal bed which then simulates the solar load on equipment,” said Quine. “If you are in the sun, the environment is very bright, about three times the radiation you would receive on Earth. This chamber allows us to simulate that environment whilst the equipment is in a vacuum. This is a difficult environment for laptops and equipment, if you were to put a laptop into the chamber, it would last about five minutes once you’ve pumped out the air. This is because the laptop’s fan, in the absence of air, cannot cool the laptop.”

Left: Quine demonstrates how the thermal-vacuum system works

The facility also includes a class 10,000 clean room for the assembly and handling of space instrumentation, as well as calibration and optical test equipment.

In addition to testing equipment and electronics prototypes, the lab is also engaged in a number of projects designed to cement Canada’s presence in space, including on Mars.

“Mars is the only other inhabitable planet in the solar system. Mars has all the natural resources of Earth and is hospitable to humans,” said Quine. “It is very important in terms of sovereignty that Canada has a robotic presence on Mars. If we don’t, we are not likely to be party to any agreements in the future that divide the project up for human use. The objective is to put Canada on Mars and to put a Canadian flag on Mars.”

The researchers in CRESS are developing a number of projects:

  • A simulated Martian atmosphere for the testing of the meteorological package (MET) being provided by Canada for the University of Arizona-led Phoenix mission to Mars. It will be launched in 2007.

  • A Canadian Mars lander and rover system, called Northern Light, for launch in 2009.

  • Evaluation of the Stratospheric Wind Interferometer For Transport studies (SWIFT) test bed, currently being approved for flight by the Canadian Space Agency on the Chinook mission, to be launched in 2010.

  • Micro-spectrometer instrumentation: Argus, with a flight mass of only 240g measures spatial variations in the concentrations of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane at a surface resolution of one kilometre. The first flight opportunity for Argus will be on the University of Toronto CanX-2 microsatellite for launch in 2007.

  • A new technology, called Spatial Heterodyne Spectroscopy (SHS), the subject of a PhD thesis. It is aimed at the measurement of water vapour in the atmosphere, first on an aircraft flight, and later to be targeted for a future Canadian mission. Versions of instruments produced for space can also be used for ground-based instruments used to study the upper atmosphere.

  • Design and fabrication of lidar instrumentation: Lidars emit intense pulses of light into the atmosphere and the reflected signals received at the ground contain detailed information about the state of the atmosphere at the reflection point. The current emphasis is on lidar to measure ozone in the troposphere, but earlier versions have measured both ozone and temperature in the middle atmosphere. A roof-top observatory is being constructed on the Petrie Science & Engineering Building at York’s Keele campus to house these lidars, and to allow the testing of other atmospheric instrumentation.

  • CSIL is currently developing cutting-edge ground-based instruments, including a Doppler Michelson Interferometer to be located at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory facility at Eureka. It has also developed a highly successful instrument for the measurement of mesospheric temperature at two levels, 87 and 94 km, called SATI (Spectral Airglow Temperature Imager).

  • A Mesospheric Imaging Michelson Interferometer (MIMI) developed for the altitude range 45-85 km, in collaboration with Professor William Ward of the University of New Brunswick. In an extension of this work, a version called DynAMO has been developed for the measurement of winds on Mars.

Right: York will have a presence when the Phoenix mission lands on Mars. A rendition of the Phoenix Lander as it approaches a touch down on the surface of Mars. Graphic by NASA JPL, Corby Waste.

In addition to the projects under development, CSIL recently celebrated the success of their WIND Imaging Interferometer instrumentation (WINDII), which flew on NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS). WINDII used a technique called Doppler Michelson Imaging, conceived by CRESS director Gordon Shepherd and colleagues. This technique allowed researchers to “see” and measure winds high above the earth, gathering important data about the earth’s upper atmosphere. The pioneering work of WINDII will provide the basis for new missions that will improve our understanding of climate change and weather forecasting, and help protect the ozone layer.

With a view to the future, York has just begun the only Canadian undergraduate program in space engineering; students from this program will also be utilizing the new space test equipment in their final year of studies. There are also 40 graduate students studying within the graduate programs in CRESS. Many of these students will also utilize the laboratory.

CSIL was developed initially in 2000 with the support of grants from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT), totaling $840,000. This provided for the set-up of the laboratory and the installation of the clean room and optical test laboratory modules. It was further enhanced with a new opportunities CFI/OIT grant in 2003 of $623,000 that has provided the thermal-vacuum and vibration test modules.

With these additions CSIL now offers users a single-location end-to-end environmental testing service to develop prototypes and to qualify flight instrumentation for space launch.

Key faculty members include Shepherd, also professor emeritus of space science; Quine; and Brian Solheim, director of CSIL and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering.