Using this technology, it is possible to detect extremely weak signals that contain information about, for example, the history of the universe.
These space signals have covered enormous distances and originate from extremely cold sources. The wavelengths involved extend far into the infrared. In order to measure cold radiation with optical detectors, the detectors must be cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 OC).
Conventional cooling systems use mechanical compressors. However, these create vibrations which impair the performance of the sensitive optical measure instruments.
University of Twente researchers from Professor Marcel ter Brake’s chair of Energy, Materials and Systems (Faculty of Science and Technology) have developed a cooling technique which is not made up of any moving parts.
Apart from the advantage of an extremely low vibration level, not using moving parts also results in high reliability and a long service life.
Collaboration for space missions
The long-term agreement between Dutch Space and the University of Twente will be an undertaking in line with collaborations for projects of the European Space Agency (ESA), as those for the previously planned Darwin mission.
Currently, both parties have joined forces to develop the cooling system for a vibration-sensitive detector looking for earth-like planets, as part of the EChO mission (Exoplanet Characterization Observatory).
In future projects in which the advanced, vibration-free cooling technology is to be implemented, the UT will take on the role of knowledge developer and Dutch Space that of industrial partner. The UT will transfer knowledge to Dutch Space for the industrial development of, for example, a cooling system for a specific space mission. The UT will remain involved in that development every step of the way.
Big Science on earth
Besides space applications, this vibration-free cooling technology can also be used in earthly Big Science projects, such as the world's biggest eye on the sky, the E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope), which is currently being built in Chile.
The cooling technology developed by the University of Twente is ideally suited to that telescope’s METIS instrument, which will detect signals from cold sources in space. The E-ELT’s main mirror will be about forty metres in diameter. The telescope's overall construction costs are estimated at nearly a billion euros.