Thermal Exchange experiment

The Cygnus cargo shuttle left the US Cape Canaveral base in Florida without a hitch, carrying the Italian experiment designed by Argotec and supervised by ASI destined for the International Space Station

The Cygnus CRS OA-6 cargo shuttle built by Orbital/ATK and carrying the Thermal Exchange experiment was launched correctly at 4.05 am Italian time, heading for the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment is a heat pipe technological demo, designed and built by Argotec with the coordination of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) as part of their “Human space Flight for Research and Technological Demonstrations on the ISS” tender. Turin Polytechnic took part in the initial electronic design phase, developing a prototype used to check the architecture.  

With future, increasingly ambitious human exploration missions in mind, attention is increasingly focussing on simple, reliable and low maintenance systems. Heat pipes are a passive system that requires no external or human control, making them a valid solution for heat transfer: they exploit the transition phase of the fluid they contain to transfer heat from a hot area to a cold area, without using pumps or devices requiring electric energy. 

In Space, the surfaces of the modules are subjected to a very wide range of temperatures, being exposed both directly to the Sun and to deep space. Moreover, in microgravity conditions the air inside the living space modules does not move naturally, and therefore has to be circulated using fans in order to cool all of the heat-producing devices on board. Heat control is therefore one of the essential systems for a successful mission, keeping all the on-board systems within their temperature operating interval. 

At the moment, no heat pipes are located inside the astronauts' living space, as the fluids used are toxic and any leaks could be catastrophic. The ARTE (Advanced Research for passive Thermal Exchange) project focusses on low-toxicity fluids that perform the same functions, and could therefore represent a real turning point. 

The scientific activities performed in microgravity and the results obtained also make a valid contribution for possible applications of these innovative devices back on Earth.  

Marino Crisconio, from ASI's Microgravity and Human Flight unit, said that: “This experiment represents yet another positive result from the Memorandum of Understanding signed between NASA and ASI in 1997 for the supply of three MPLM logistics modules. The right to use the experimental resources on board the ISS, obtained in exchange for that supply (upmass, volume, crew time, down mass), has made it possible for ASI to make these resources available to the Italian scientific and industrial community through tenders.”

“The future of exploration and the success of space missions will be increasingly linked to systems capable of reducing the need for human control and maintenance”, commented David Avino, Managing Director of Argotec. “With the ARTE project, in a few days' time we will be experimenting some heat pipes with exactly these characteristics on the International Space Station, taking the first step towards certifying a category of heat systems that are not yet in production in Italy. Argotec has been studying and developing devices for years that could be used not only in space, but also on Earth.”