The new measurement technique is also suitable for a wide range of applications on Earth.
The system is currently in the process of being handed over to NASA. Plans are for the US space organisation to take the unit up to the ISS next summer, using an unmanned cargo spaceship.
After a ten-day test phase, the Norwegian-German system will be trialled in the ISS, at first for six months, in order to provide useful data on gas emissions. If the system passes its tests, the next version will become a regular part of the space station’s monitoring equipment.
The owners of the ISS wish to prevent its inhabitants from breathing in gases that are either unpleasant, toxic or carcinogenic. Just as on Earth, gases will evaporate out of walls, interiors and equipment. Other gases may come from leaks or overheating, while the human body also produces gases.
And out in space, we cannot simply open a window! In the space station, the astronauts are completely dependent on the air purification system.
Through the needle’s eye
Equipment for measuring gases is installed on board the ISS as a matter of safety, so that the astronauts can quickly see whether the air purification system has failed or a leak has occurred, and put countermeasures into effect. But at present, only a few gases can be measured rapidly and frequently. The time taken to identify other gases is measured in hours, while some can only be measured after samples of the air have been returned to earth.
Experts from industry and scientists have been competing to develop the next generation of measuring equipment. Today, the leading candidate for use on board the ISS is the new system from SINTEF and the German company Kayser-Threde GmbH.
“World championship” in gas measurement
A few years ago, in order to provide a foundation for the choice of new measurement technology, NASA organised an unofficial “World Championship” in gas measurement, in which the Norwegian-German solution went right to the top.
The system gained maximum score for its ability to recognise gases in NASA’s text mixtures and to indicate their concentrations. Since then, the Norwegian and German partners have improved the sensitivity of the system even more, and they have produced a more compact, lighter version which is more suitable for the weight and space limitations inherent in space-station deployment.
Works by “seeing” gases
The system, which goes under the name of ANITA, works rapidly and completely automatically and presents its results in real time. During the upcoming trials, however, the astronauts will not have direct access to the results, as all the data will be transmitted via NASA and further processed by SINTEF.
The solution is based on optical technology. The system “sees” gases with the aid of a beam of infrared radiation. SINTEF’s primary contribution has been in the methods used by the system to interpret its own optical measurements.
According to SINTEF’s project manager Atle Honne, this is a field that has demanded a great deal of new development efforts. Honne is proud of the results. Ground-based tests have shown that the system is capable of discriminating between at least 32 different gases in all sorts of mixtures.
The main point of the space station trials is to demonstrate that the system is also capable of functioning under “space-ship” conditions. That NASA wants such a long period of testing is due to the fact that the organisation want to acquire better air-quality data for its space station.
Earth-bound benefits too
SINTEF scientist Atle Honne explains that the new measurement technique is also suitable for a wide range of applications on Earth, which is the main reason for SINTEF’s decision to go in for this project. “We can envisage a whole series of applications, from monitoring industrial processes to use on board submarines and other sites where it is vital to control indoor climate”, he says.
By Svein Tønseth
Aase Dragland | alfa
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