Mission to Mars: Running a Computer in an Oven


ESA develops new technologies for the mission to Mars, the planet closest to the Sun, which is already applied on Earth.

Mercury, the planet that crosses defiant this Monday ahead of the Sun , is a body of extreme temperatures due to its proximity to the star. Its surface goes from 450 degrees Celsius to minus 180. Towards its orbit the probe of the European Space Agency (ESA) BepiColombo , which has Spanish participation and is scheduled to arrive in 2025, is directed. For this mission, they have had to develop new technologies and materials that support heat capable of melting metals. “It’s like putting a laptop in an oven,” ESA engineers explain. The research is already applied on Earth and has served for cooling systems of the Paris metro, in the latest generation of solar panels or in the protective clothing of firefighters.

The sunlight around Mercury is 11 times more intense than on Earth , a circumstance that has made the European mission one of the biggest technological challenges. “BepiColombo is a mission like no other. 80% of its equipment has had to be developed from scratch, ”says systems engineer Daniele Stramaccioni to ESA.

The first challenge has been the isolation, which in conventional satellites consists of a milticapa cover. The probe that travels to Mercury since last year is equipped with up to four of these reinforced insulation blankets with between 10 and 20 layers, which represents an increase of 94 kilos to the weight of a ship of these characteristics, according to the engineer of ESA Heiko Ritte.

Titanium, aluminum, Upilex-S, a material used to coat cables that withstand high temperatures, and 3M Nextel, a ceramic fiber capable of withstanding the most extreme thermal, mechanical and electrical conditions and They are used in ovens. Its installation has been carried out preventing any loose fiber from interfering or damaging the optical cameras of the ship.

To avoid direct radiation, in addition to the materials, BepiColombo will be oriented towards the position that allows less exposure and has a system similar to Venetian blinds built with titanium sheets.

The probe modules are equipped with a dense network of between 63 and 97 “heat pipes”, the system that has been applied to the Paris metro. It has been designed as if they were the sweat glands of the human body, with an evaporation or condensation system, depending on the temperature they register.

Nor were the porous materials suitable for a mission where any emission or deterioration can compromise the operation of the instruments , so a system that combines ozone with ultraviolet radiation has been developed.

Formula 1 cars have also contributed to the development of the probe. There are materials and glues capable of supporting 140 degrees Celsius, but they generate smoke (which could affect the instruments) and it was necessary that they withstand temperatures of up to 200. The engineers then looked at the materials used for high competition vehicles and developed a fiber of carbon reinforced with polymer as well as a new adhesive, which has been tested in the Electrical Materials and Components laboratory. These developments are applicable in solar panels that are used on Earth.


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