NASA’s emerging microgap cooling to be tested aboard reusable launch vehicle

A technology for tightly packed, high-power integrated circuits, power electronics.

Cutting Edge magazine -Frank Robinson with cooling system that will be demonstrated on a launch this summer.
Cutting Edge magazine -Frank Robinson with cooling system that will be demonstrated on a launch this summer.

A NASA scientist has come up with an emerging technology that removes unwanted and potentially damaging heat from small, tightly packed instrument electronics and other spaceflight gear. The demonstration is an important step in validating the system, which engineers believe could be ideal for cooling tightly packed, high-power integrated circuits, power electronics, laser heads or other devices.

The smaller the space between these electronics, the harder it is to remove the heat. Because these devices are vulnerable to overheating — just like any electronic device on Earth — the cooling technology must operate under all conditions, including the microgravity environment found in space.

Goddard technologist Frank Robinson is scheduled to fly his microgap-cooling technology aboard the fully reusable Blue Origin New Shepard launch. Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk
Goddard technologist Frank Robinson is scheduled to fly his microgap-cooling technology aboard the fully reusable Blue Origin New Shepard launch.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk

The demonstration, funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Flight Opportunities program. His experiment also features “flow boiling,” where, as its name implies, the coolant boils as it flows through the tiny gaps. According to him, the technique offers a higher rate of heat transfer, which keeps devices cooler and, therefore, less likely to fail due to overheating.

Since not every one of the chips is in contact with the printed circuit board, customary cooling methods wouldn’t function admirably with 3-D hardware, Robinson stated, including he started his examination with NASA support to guarantee that the office could exploit 3-D hardware when it ended up accessible. “In any case, we can evacuate the warmth by streaming a coolant through these little-installed channels.”

Goddard Senior Technologist for Strategic Integration Ted Swanson said, “Frank [Robinson] is demonstrating the fundamental concept and we need the flight validation to gain confidence. While theory predicts that the lack of gravity would have a negligible impact on the performance of microgap coolers, this needs to be demonstrated in a space-like environment. Otherwise, potential users are unlikely to commit to the technology.”

The Blue Origin New Shepard launch vehicle (pictured here) is flying an experiment designed to prove that the microgap-cooling technology is immune from the effects of zero gravity and therefore, potentially useful for removing heat from tightly packed electronics on spaceflight instruments. Credits: Blue Origin
The Blue Origin New Shepard launch vehicle (pictured here) is flying an experiment designed to prove that the microgap-cooling technology is immune from the effects of zero gravity and therefore, potentially useful for removing heat from tightly packed electronics on spaceflight instruments.
Credits: Blue Origin

Although Robinson has tested his cooling technology at various orientations in a laboratory, the question is whether it would be equally effective in space.

Should the microgap technology succeed during the demonstration, the next step would be to find an actual application and demonstrate it in space, Swanson said.

Through the Flight Opportunities program, the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) selects promising technologies from industry, academia, and government for testing on commercial launch vehicles. The program is funded by STMD and managed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

STMD is responsible for developing the crosscutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.