This Vacuum Chamber Looks Like Some Futuristic Spaceship Corridor

Illustration for article titled This Vacuum Chamber Looks Like Some Futuristic Spaceship Corridor

Huge vacuum chambers on Earth are crucial for building and testing spacecraft, so we explore further into space. The photo above is Vacuum Chamber 5, where electric propulsion and power systems are being tested at Glenn Research Center.


According to NASA, the VF-5 is very special because it has “the highest pumping speed of any electric propulsion test facility in the world, which is important in maintaining a continuous space-like environment.” It’s here that NASA’s engineers test advanced Solar Electric Propulsion technology for future deep space exploration, including expeditions to Mars.

And it is awesome how VF-5 itself looks like a spaceship interior from a sci-fi movie, like a well-lit Nostromo or a rough-around-the-edges Discovery One. Take a closer look:

Illustration for article titled This Vacuum Chamber Looks Like Some Futuristic Spaceship Corridor

NASA explains the scene:

The cryogenic panels at the top and back of the chamber house a helium-cooled panel that reaches near absolute zero temperatures (about -440 degrees Fahrenheit). The extreme cold of this panel freezes any air left in the chamber and quickly freezes the thruster exhaust, allowing the chamber to maintain a high vacuum environment. The outer chevrons are cooled with liquid nitrogen to shield the cryogenic panels from the room temperature surfaces of the tank.

Most electric propulsion devices, such as Hall Thrusters, use xenon as a propellant, which is very expensive. By capturing the used xenon as ice during testing, researchers are able to recover the propellant to reuse, saving NASA and test customers considerable costs. The oil diffusion pumps along the bottom of the tank capped by circular covers use a low vapor pressure silicon oil to concentrate small amounts of gas to the point where it can be mechanically pumped from the chamber.




The company I work for does this on a much smaller scale (1 diffusion pump typically, though we have tested some positioning thrusters in a “crude” vacuum ~1psia) its incredibly hard to seal chambers for vacuum levels this low, you start having to deal with leakage through the wall materials, not just seals... And then adding in a cryopumping system that complex. Never mind the thrusters they are testing, just running this chamber is a feat in itself!