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To boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before

I was on my way back from the ACR News Awards last week an item on the radio caught my attention: the Herschel space telescope was soon to cease functioning due to losing its refrigerant.

My immediate thought was that even space rockets suffer with refrigerant containment issues; however it seems that it is nothing of the sort.
The billion-euro telescope employs special deflectors that need to be cooled to amazingly low temperatures (close to absolute zero). This is achieved with the aid of a cooling system run on helium, more than 2,000 litres of which had been loaded onto the telescope at the launch. The cryogen has gradually boiled off and is now close to being depleted.

I always assumed that it was cold in space but obviously it is not cold enough. Without its cooling system, the telescope will go blind before the end of this month.

The impending demise of Herschel is not unexpected due to the scientists and engineers having calculated the loss rate at the planning stage.
The cooling system enabled Herschel to study the processes at play as large clouds of gas and dust collapse to form new stars. Its deep vision has also enabled scientists to trace the story of how galaxies changed through cosmic time.

"I think there is a consensus in the science community that Herschel has been a tremendous success and that we have made many beautiful observations' the project's scientist Dr Gören Pilbratt said.

The next mission is already being planned and prepared for. Interestingly, the cooling system next time will be of a mechanical design and so will have a longer life expectancy.

At the end of the radio item, my thoughts returned to the previous evening at the ACR News Awards and in particular the Alan Moor Award. This very special award recognises the efforts of the 'unsung heros' of the industry; the ones who are not directly in the limelight but who make significant contributions in their own way. Last night's award was presented to a very worthy winner Miriam Rodway, the Secretary of the Institute of Refrigeration. The first female recipient I believe.

Then, in a rather philosophical mood, the telescope's relatively short life reminded me of our own human vulnerability. We are each given a limited period of time and it is up to us what we make of it. We work in an amazing industry that truly does change lives. Herschel is yet another reminder of how cooling technology touches our lives in fantastic ways. Without cooling, our modern life would not be what it is.

There are opportunities to really make a difference to the industry if we accept the challenge and responsibility. Will you be a future recipient of the Alan Moor Award?

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Posted by Steve Gill 19 March 2013 09:33:00 Categories: Fresh Talk


Ron Gentle
21 December 2015 22:23:17

What a trip down memory lane, this morning has been. Visiting old blog postings from my friend Steve Gill.  Each one I read I think is better than the previous, and so it goes. They get better and better.  This one is so well written, and with an important message as always.  Perhaps this one more poignant than his others.   Yes, we can all make a difference in the limited time we have if we so chose.  

By Jason
19 March 2013 09:47:17
Thanks Pete. A few people at work did also tell me who Alan Moor was. Sounds like he was a good guy and the Award is well named in his memory.
By Pete
19 March 2013 09:46:17
Agreed. Unsung heroes fix things unnoticed. When they don't fix it they are the villian.
By Pete
19 March 2013 09:45:17
@ Jason
Alan Moor was MD of Bitzer UK. He died a few years ago. A very active industry man
By John Aston
19 March 2013 09:44:17
Steve, your blog says that the next telescope - the Japanese SPICA - will operate with a mechnical refrigeration system. I have heard conflicting versions; some say it will be mechnical and some say that it will be magnetic. Do you have any details of the system, and if it is indeed mechanical, what refrigerant is being used?
By Burak Tunca
19 March 2013 09:43:17
Dear Mr Steve, it is not just telescopes that require very low temperatures to operate. At the other end of the scale low temperature Scanning Probe Microscopes and other specialist microscopes are used in a variety of labs. Cryo-Electron Microscopy specializes in interpreting and visualizing unstained biological complexes such as viruses. Without these microscopes, a modern lab would not be able to make the advances that they do.
By Jumbo
19 March 2013 09:42:17
I am used to people saying that refrigeration is a black art, and magical in some way, but now it helps us look through cosmic time it sounds more like science fiction.
Thanks Steve, for broadening our horizons and for not mentioning FGas Regulations once in your blog.
By Jason
19 March 2013 09:41:17
My congrats to Miriam and all the other previous winners of the Alan Moor Award.
Awarding her was a break with tradition as all the previous winners (all worthy I might add) where men approaching the end of their careers. It was not to see some free thinking by awarding a younger person.
Some good comments here, I like fROSTY's point about the fact that we as an industry often go unrecognised until there is a problem with the kit.
It is often said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I have never heard it said that the pen is mightier than the refrigerant analyser. Steve, your thought provoking blogs and efforts to promote the industry are not unnoticed and may be the judges will recognise this and give you the award next time. However, now i have said this, you will not stand a chance, so sorry mate, i have just blown your chances.
Steve, hope we have some more blogs from you and a return of your gentle humour too.
Finally, is the maintenance contract up for grabs for the mechanical fridge plant for the next rocket? Imagine the mileage i could get on a call out for that!
19 March 2013 09:40:17
Refrigeration is a great Industry to work in. Even today we read that A/C has been responsible for a dramatic decline in heat - related deaths, in the USA, over the last 50 years. Unfortunately the realisation as to the importance of the plant only becomes priority when it breaksdown, then the unsung heroes perform their heroics. Belated conrats. to all award winners. Thanks Steve, a great blog.
By Kashyap Upadhyay
19 March 2013 09:39:17
May I express my congratulations to Mrs Miriam Rodway on her winning the Award.
Refrigeration is essential to life the world over and it is the unsung heroes that make up the vast majority of the workforce that make this possible.
Without refrigeration, one telescope goes blind. Without refrigeration millions of people cannot live comfortably.
By Marlboro man
19 March 2013 09:38:17
Our industry is great, we make parts for space cool is that (pun totally intended?

We are the unsung heroes all the time, so it is great that there is actually someone that recognizes this, and that there is even an award for it. I don't know who Alan Moor was (or is) sorry, but it is fantastic to have an award like this in his name.
Not enough do enough for this industry and it is good that some do.
Good to see a new Blog from Steve after a long break. Keep them coming
By Jim Walker
19 March 2013 09:37:17
What temperature is it in space? What temperature will the mechanical system be condensing at?
By Peter Barker
19 March 2013 09:36:17
Well done Miriam and all the other winners of the Alan Moor Award, both past and future!
Thank you Steve for another thought provoking and informative blog.
By Wimala Goonaratne
19 March 2013 09:35:17
Dear Steve, not only for the Herschel telescope, it is valid for some of the drugs stored under refrigeration. Specially insulin is stored under +2 C to +8 C and if this is changed over a period of time it will change its characteristics. This will lead to blindness of diabetic patients.
By Ban Zhang
19 March 2013 09:34:17
Hello Steve, you may be interested to know that the Japanese SPICA will be cryogen free as you advise and will be cooled by the combined methods of radiant cooling and mechanical cooling. Details can be found from various web sources. Here is one?
Comments are closed on this post.
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