Conditions in space are unlike anything we experience on Earth. Incredible extremes of temperature that can switch in an instant, startling vacuum conditions, not to mention radiation - it`s a tough life for a spacecraft. So it is essential to make sure they are prepared to withstand these conditions before they are launched into this wholly unfriendly environment.
For instance, in a vacuum, heat cannot be conducted as it is here on Earth. A spacecraft that is being heated by the Sun`s rays may, at the same time, be experiencing temperatures far below freezing on the side of its body facing away from the Sun. Similarly, when the spacecraft shifts and moves out of the sunlight altogether, the rapid drop in temperature experienced by the spacecraft would be more dramatic than putting an ice cube into a furnace. These sudden changes in temperature mean that the spacecraft has to be extremely flexible, as well as resilient, in order to cope with the inevitable expansions and contractions it will undergo as it moves in and out of the Sun`s rays.
In order to find out what it is really like out there, most of the European Space Agency`s science spacecraft are carefully loaded into an enormous simulator that is capable of creating the nearest thing to space conditions here on Earth. Looking like a giant tin can 10 metres in diameter, the Large Space Simulator, the largest of its kind in Europe, is used to inflict these extremes on the spacecraft it is testing, in order to check, recheck, and then check again, that it is up to the job.
Preparing the simulator is an extremely delicate task and has to be carried out with the utmost care. "If there is a scratch smaller than a hair`s breadth at a joint in the pipes feeding the simulator, the liquid nitrogen we use to cool the unit would leak out and the vacuum would be lost," says Philippe Sivac, a spacecraft engineer at ESA`s test centre in the Netherlands. "So there is always a moment of suspense when we first switch on."
Monica Talevi | alphagalileo
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