The AMS-02 experiment underscores the importance of fundamental knowledge of thermal control in specialised environments like satellites and aircraft, and Van Es’s experience gives him an edge in devising solutions for clients, especially in the development of satellites, which are becoming more and more common. “Small satellites, in the femto and pico ranges, as well as smaller nano-scale satellites, don’t face thermal challenges due to their limited amount of on-board electronics. When we get to the upper ranges of the nanosatellites, starting at about 5kg, we start to see the need for thermal control. But their delicate nature makes normal heat pipes suboptimal, because the pipes are always ‘on’. This spells trouble for small satellites because there’s a risk of cooling down too quickly when they’re in the shade. You don’t want to lose the heat that you need for your electronics to run smoothly. Otherwise it would require integrating heavy batteries”. So Van Es and his team are developing heat pipes that switch off on command, maintaining a good working temperature for the electronics.
This case study is testament to Van Es’s entrepreneurial vision. “The future of satellites will see a shift away from the one-off, extremely well-designed units commissioned by the likes of NASA and ESA, and more towards constellations of many smaller satellites driven by demand from commercial parties,” says Van Es “Commercial parties think more in terms of low-cost and good is good enough”, he adds. “So you need to start thinking differently about thermal control, both in the way you design it and how to produce larger numbers.”
With small satellites becoming increasingly commonplace, Van Es is piloting a small and resilient pump based on a device made for medical applications. It has twenty small piezo-membrane pumps, so that if one fails you still have 19 out of 20 to maintain the flow. Van Es: “It’s a great solution that fits into many satellites, and it’s easy to produce economically in large numbers.”