Cryocoolers for space applications

The Cryogenics Group has been involved in space cryocoolers since 1978, primarily invoved in Stirling cycle and Pulse Tube refrigeration. There are several other types of cryogenic/cooling systems used for space applications, however, and these are described below.

A brief introduction to coolers used in space

Passive coolers are those which require no input power and there are two types in common use:

  1. Radiators. Radiators are panels radiating heat according to Stefan's Law and are the workhorse of satellite cooling due to their extremely high reliability. They have low mass and a lifetime limited only by surface contamination and degredation. It is important, however, to prevent the surface from viewing any warm objects and the device must therefore be carefully designed taking the vehicle's orbit into account. They also have severe limitations on the heat load and temperature (typically in the milliwatt range at 70K). Multiple stages are often used to baffle the lowest temperature stage, or `patch', and it has been shown that efficiency is nearly optimized with three stages, although two is often enough. In this case the first stage consists of a highly reflective baffle (e.g. a cone), to shield the patch from the spacecraft, Earth or shallow-angle sun-light.
  2. Stored cryogens. Dewars containing a cryogen such as liquid helium or solid neon may be used to achieve temperatures below those offered by radiators (heat is absorbed by either boiling or sublimation respectively). These provide excellent temperature stability with no exported vibrations but substantially increase the launch mass of the vehicle and limit the lifetime of the mission to the amount of cryogen stored. They have also proved to be of limited reliability.

Passive coolers have been used for many years in space science applications due to their relatively high reliability and low vibration levels, however these are now joined by coolers requiring input power, so called `active' devices (also termed 'cryocoolers') Active coolers use closed thermodynamic cycles to transport heat up a temperature gradient to achieve lower cold-end temperatures at the cost of electrical input power. The first long-life active cooler system successfully operated in space was a cluster of four rhombic-drive, grease lubricated Stirling cycle machines launched in 1978 aboard DOD 1-78-1 developed by Phillips and cooling two gamma ray detectors. Although these showed significant performance degredation on-orbit they operated sufficiently well to keep the payload operating until it was destroyed during a successful test of an anti-satellite interceptor in 1985. Since this first generation the flexibility and reliability of active coolers have proved major contributors to the success of many missions. The major types of active cooler are:

  1. Stirling cycle. These coolers are based on causing a working gas to undergo a Stirling cycle which consists of 2 constant volume processes and two isothermal processes. Devices consist of a compressor pump and a displacer unit with a regenerative heat exchanger, known as a `regenerator'. Stirling cycle coolers were the first active cooler to be used successfully in space and have proved to be reliable and efficient. Recent years have seen the development of two-stage devices which extend the lower temperature range from 60-80K to 15-30K.
  2. Pulse tube. Pulse tube coolers are similar to the Stirling cycle coolers although the thermodynamic processes are quite different. They consist of a compressor and a fixed regenerator. Since there are no moving parts at the cold-end reliability is theoretically higher than Stirling cycle machines. Efficiencies approaching Stirling cycle coolers can be achieved and several recent missions have demonstrated their usefulness in space.
  3. Joule-Thompson. These coolers work using the well known Joule-Thomson (Joule-Kelvin), effect. A gas is forced through a thermally isolated porous plug or throttle valve by a mechanical compressor unit leading to isenthalpic cooling. Although this is an irreversible process, with correspondingly low efficiency, J-T coolers are simple, reliable, and have low electrical and mechanical noise levels. A J-T stage driven by a valved linear compressor, similar to those used for Stirling cycle and Pulse Tube coolers, will be flown on the planned Planck telescope mission (expected to be launched in 2007).
  4. Sorption. Sorption coolers are essentially J-T coolers which use a thermo-chemical process to provide gas compression with no moving parts. Powdered sorbent materials (e.g. metal hydrides), are electrically heated and cooled to pressurize, circulate, and adsorb a working fluid such as hydrogen. Efficiency is low but may be increased by the use of mixed working gases. Demonstration models have already been flown and they are expected to useful in long-life missions where very low vibration levels are required, such as the planned Darwin mission to image the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.
  5. Reverse Brayton. Reverse/Turbo Brayton coolers have high efficiencies and are practically vibration free. Coolers consist of a rotary compressor, a rotary turbo-alternator (expander), and a counterflow heat exchanger (as opposed to the regenerator found in Stirling or Pulse Tube coolers). The compressor and expander use high-speed miniature turbines on gas bearings and small machines are thus very difficult to build. They are primarily useful for low temperature experiments (less than 10K), where a large machine is inevitable or for large capacity devices at higher temperatures (although these requirements are quite rare). A recent application of this class of cooler was the Creare device used to recover the NICMOS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope.
  6. Adiabatic Demagnetization. Adiabatic Demagnetization Refrigeration (ADR), has been used on the ground for many years to achieve milli-Kelvin temperatures after a first stage cooling process. The process utilizes the magneto-caloric effect with a paramagnetic salt. These coolers are currently under development for space use.
  7. 3He coolers. In addition to its use as a stored cryogen the properties of can be used to achieve temperatures below 1K with closed cycle "Sorption coolers" (above 250mK), and dilution refrigerators (above 50mK). The former are scheduled for use in the SPIRE and PACS instruments aboard the Herchel satellite whereas the latter will be used on the Planck mission.
  8. Optical cooling. In recent years the principle of optical cooling has been developed and demonstrated. The principle of anti-Stokes fluorescence in Ytterbium doped Zirconium Fluoride is used to provide vibration-free solid-state cooling. The principles of this technique are being developed and it will be many years before they are ready for space applications.
  9. Peltier effect coolers. Solid-state Peltier coolers, or Thermo-Electric Converters (TECs), are routinely used in space to achieve temperatures above 170K (e.g. the freezers aboard the Interational Space Station). These devices work on the same principle as the Seebeck effect, but in reverse: the creation of a temperature difference between two dissimilar metals by application of a current.

Advantages/disadvantages of different types of cooler technology

Usually the coolers can be run at lower or higher temperatures with correspondingly lower or high heat lifts.

Cooler Typical temperature Typical heat lift Advantages Disadvantages
Radiator 80 K 0.5 W Reliable, low vibration, long lifetime Complicates orbit
Cryogen 4 K 0.05 W Stable, low vibration Short lifetime, out-gassing, massive, complex
Stirling -- 1 stage 80 K 0.8 W Efficient, heritage Vibrations
Stirling -- 2 stage 20 K 0.06 W Intermediate temp Under development
Pulse tube 80 K 0.8 W Lower vibrations Lower efficiency than Stirling
Peltier 170 K 1 W Lightweight High temp, low efficiency
Joule-Thompson 4 K 0.01 W Low vibrations Requires hybrid design
Sorption 10 K 0.1 W Low vibrations Under development
Rev. Brayton 65 K 8 W High capacity Complex
ADR 0.05 K 0.01 mW Only way to reach these temps. Large magnetic field

Some examples of missions using the above coolers

Mission Cooler Temperature Heat lift Mass Lifetime
UARS/ISAMS 2 x Stirling 80 K 0.5 W 5 kg 3 years
IRAS Helium cryogen 4 K N/A 70 kg 300 days
STS/BETSE Sorption 10 K 100 mW
10 mins
Cassini/CIRS Radiator 80 K 200 mW 2.5 kg Unlimited
EOS/AIRS 2 x Pulse tube 55 K 1.63 W 35 kg 50,000 hrs
HST/NICMOS Rev. Brayton 65 K 8 W
2 years
  • Missions are listed as vehicle/instrument.
  • Design lifetime has been quoted if the instrument is yet to be launched or failed due to another component.
  • Excluding electronics.
  • STS/BETSE was a technology demonstrator.
  • UARS/ISAMS figures per cooler running at 83% stroke.

Stirling cycle coolers at the University of Oxford

In 1978 the Department of Engineering Science was awarded a contract to construct a small, long life Stirling cycle cryocooler for cooling an infrared instrument called ISAMS (Improved Stratospheric and Mesospheric Sounder), aboard the UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research) platform. These coolers were jointly developed by groups in the Physics and Engineering Departments at Oxford and at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The two devices were designed to provide 1 W of total focal plane and detector cooling. The instrument was launched in September 1991 aboard the Space Shuttle and operated for 180 days before the instrument failed due to a chopper problem. During this time the cooler worked to specifications and was a powerful demonstration of the usefulness of long-life cryocoolers in space.

ISAMS cooler schematic

The ISAMS cooler was the result of extensive development over 10 years by the three groups involved and incorporated several important design features to prevent the failure and performance degradation commonly associated with other mechanical coolers and the first generation devices mentioned above.

  • Split design - The cooler consisted of compressor and displacer units connected with a gas transfer pipe. This simplified the testing and integration of the units.
  • Clearance seals - To maintain the compression pressure the compressor and displacer units must have good seals. Space-based coolers cannot use fluid bearings due to contamination issues and contact bearings have a limited lifetime. High tolerance clearance seals were therefore developed using low friction organic plastics.
  • Spiral flexures - These are flat springs with high radial stiffness allowing maintenance of the close tolerances required for the clearance seals.
  • Linear motor - Essentially a loud-speaker type motor, this allowed the cooler to avoid the wear and vibration problems associated with rotary drives by minimizing side loads.

Second-generation Oxford cryocoolers

First Generation machines have proven reliability, but are expensive to produce. Hence the need for lower cost, simpler machine for tactical cooler market (e.g. aircraft applications). In collaboration with Honeywell Hymatic a range of integral cryocoolers was developed to meet these needs.

Tactical cooler schematic

Useful links and references


  • Moss RJ, Gabriel SB. A critical review of space-cooling techniques. Advances in Space Research, 17(1), 1996, pp 119-122.
  • Glaister DS, Donabedian M, Curran DGT, Davis T. An overview of the performance and maturity of long life cryocoolers for space applications. Proceedings of the 10th International Cryocoolers Conference, 1998, pp 1-19.
  • Collaudin B, Rando N. Cryogenics in space: a review of the missions and of the technologies. Cryogenics, 40. 2000. pp797-819.
  • Lounasmaa OV. Experimental principles and methods below 1K. Academic press. 1974.
  • White GK, Meeson PJ. Experimental techniques in low-temperature physics. Clarendon Press. 2002. 4th edition.

Stirling coolers

  • Walker, G. "Stirling Engines", Clarendon Press, Oxford (1980).
  • Bradshaw, T.W., Delderfield, J., Werret, S.T. and Davey, G. "Performance of the Oxford miniature Stirling cycle refrigerator", Advances in Cryogenic Engineering, Plenum. 31 (1986), pp 801-809.
  • Davey, G. "Review of the Oxford cryocooler", Advances in Cryogenic Engineering, Plenum. 35B (1990), pp 1423-1430.

Pulse tube coolers

  • Ross, Jr. RG, Green KE. AIRS Cryocooler System Design and Development. Proceedings of the 9th International Cryocoolers Conference, 1997, pp 885-894.

Adiabatic demagnetization

  • Serlemitsos AT, Warner BA, Castles S, Breon SR. Adiabatic Demagnetization Refrigerator for Space Use". Advances in Cryogenics, 1990, 35B, pp 1431-1437.
  • Hagmann C, Richards, PL. Two-stage magnetic refrigerator for astronomical applications with reservoir temperatures above 4K. Cryogenics. 34(3). 1994. pp221-226.
  • Shirron PJ, Canavan ER, DiPirro MJ, Francis J, Jackson M, King TT, Tuttle, JG. Progress in the development of a continuous Adiabatic Demagnetization Refrigerator. Cryocoolers 12. Kluwer Academic, 2003. pp 661-668.
  • XRS-2.

Helium dilution refrigerators

  • Collaudin B, Passvogel T. The FIRST and Planck 'Carrier' missions. Description of the cryogenic systems. Cryogenics. 39. 1999. pp 157-165.
  • Benoit A, Pujol S. Dilution refrigerator for space applications with a cryocooler. Cryogenics. 34(5). 1994. pp 421-423.

Optical cooling

J-T coolers

  • Collaudin B, Passvogel T. The FIRST and Planck `Carrier' missions. Description of the cryogenic systems. Cryogenics, 39(2), 1999, pp 157-165.

Sorption coolers

  • Burger JF, ter Brake HJM, Rogalla H, Linder M. Vibration-free 5K sorption cooler for ESA's Darwin mission. Cryogenics, 42, 2002, pp 97-108.
  • Bard S, Karlmann P, Rodriguez J, Wu J, Wade L, Cowgill P, Russ KM. Flight demonstration of a 10 K Sorption Cryocooler. Proceedings of the 9th International Cryocoolers Conference, 1996, pp 567.

Stored cryogens

  • Mason PV. Long-term performance of the passive thermal control systems of the IRAS spacecraft. Cryogenics, 28(2), 1988, pp 137-141.


  • Jones G. Thermal analysis and testing of a spaceborne passive cooler. DPhil thesis, Clarendon Laboratory, University of Oxford, 1994.

Reverse Brayton cycle coolers

  • Swift WL, McCormick JA, Breedlove JJ, Dolan FX, Sixsmith H. Initial operation of the NICMOS Cryocooler on the Hubble Space Telescope. Proceedings of the 12th International Cryocoolers Conference, 2003, pp 563-570.

Thermo-electric coolers

  • Davis GL. Thermo-electric cooler technology. Advanced Infrared Detectors and Systems. IEE Conference Publication No 204. 1981. pp 40-41.