UTS is at the core of an industry research consortium developing a heat management solution for onboard computer chips aimed at improving the reliability of space electronics
Thermal management is one of the biggest challenges facing the next generation of satellites. As demand for satellite services, such as Earth Observation, Space Situational Awareness and next-generation satellite communications increases, so too does the requirement for greater onboard computational power, resulting in significant heat generation.
A project, funded by research centre SmartSat, as part of a $1 million funding round has been initiated to support the development of new technology designed to reject heat more effectively than traditional metal heatsink structures, reducing the risk of overheating.
UTS researchers are working alongside start-up space companies Spiral Blue and Mawson Rovers to trial a new heatsink geometry that uses a phase-change material as a “heat battery” that can whisk heat away from the onboard computer chips. The resulting 3D-printed structure has been specifically designed for maximum heat transfer from the metal into a heat storage medium.
Tested successfully within the vacuum chambers at UTS TechLab, its real-world viability will be tested on the Waratah Seed WS-1 rideshare mission, which will see an Australian-built 6U CubeSat flown into low-Earth orbit (LEO) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher early next year.
Project Lead Nick Bennett says the experiment will be placed in a custom payload with a heater and multiple temperature sensors to track performance.
Bennett says it is of critical importance that space electronics prove reliable however this will become a problem in future. When excessive temperature becomes an issue, the current solution is to switch the electronics off to allow time for the heat to dissipate.
Spiral Blue’s CEO and co-founder, Taofiq Huq agreed that this is an impending problem.
Future satellite services will generate heat that must be managed at a CPU chip level to maximise the number of images we can classify and the answers we can provide from data on-board our customers’ spacecraft.
Mawson Rovers CEO Matt Ryall, an alumnus of UTS, says most computers require a metal heatsink and a fan to keep them cool.
“In space, there is no air, so no convection to cool things down. Instead, anything that heats up stays hot except for the much slower process of ‘radiative cooling’, where the heat is slowly dissipated as thermal radiation.”
Believing a better solution could be found, a custom circuit board was designed to simulate a real computer chip and accurately measure the heat management system developed by UTS.
Bennett says if the trial is successful, its application could reach beyond the Earth’s orbit where it could be applied to Mawson Rover’s lunar rover development program.
Ryall says the collaboration between the UTS Tech Lab team and project partners is evidence of what can be achieved when changing industry demands are quickly and dynamically reacted to with real-world solutions.
We’re excited to be developing space technology in Australia with partners like UTS, and having a real impact on improving life on Earth through work like the Resilient Space Computing project.
Space technology represents a unique combination of technical challenges, impactful projects and inspirational stories for everyone on Earth. Australia is in a great position to take advantage of the boom in the space industry to develop its own local industry.