Helping the world explore the universe

This year, three scientists, James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, have been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work, which brings new understanding about the universe’s structure and history and the first discovery of a planet orbiting a sun-like star in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. For decades, ABB has made intricate scientific instruments that measure and analyze gases in the atmosphere to help scientists better understand its composition and evolution. Now, ABB is expanding from the Earth’s atmosphere into the unknown.

As part of our Noble Media Partnership series, here we look at what ABB is doing for the future of space exploration.

Looking beyond the known

Most of the energy emitted by stars and interstellar matter at the center of galaxies is absorbed by dust through which only FAR-infrared light manage to escape partially. A FAR-IR telescope is thus the best tool to explore beyond this dust curtain. In 2019, ABB has won a $1.7 million contract for the development of a scanning mechanism for the Canadian Space Agency. As part of the Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA), ABB’s cryogenic scanning mirror mechanism will help obtain a better understanding of the physics of star formation and black hole growth. The mechanism allows the mirrors of the spectrometer to move precisely within the SPICA Far-infrared instrument (SAFARI) with the support of a laser metrology system. This movement would reveal more information on the energy distribution of the light and the underlying physical phenomenon occurring light years away from the Earth.

The Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA) - Credit: JAXA/ISAS
The Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA) - Credit: JAXA/ISAS

The main obstacles in the development of the mechanism are to ensure it can survive the vacuum of space, the rocket launch vibrations, the -269 °C operating temperature and the compensation of micro vibration disturbances once in space – all the while maintaining positional stability at a hundred thousandth of a millimeter. With 45 years of experience in Fournier spectrometers and optical instrumentation, ABB’s Measurement and Analytics Business Line is up to the challenge.

The SPICA space mission has been proposed to the European Space Agency (ESA) Cosmic Vision Program, in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The SAFARI is one of the proposed SPICA mission’s two main science instruments behind the telescope. If selected, the space telescope would launch in 2032.

On an exoplanet expedition

When looking beyond our solar system, telescopes are normally only capable of catching sight of stars as their photons - particles of light - vastly overpower the ones coming from exoplanets. The Wide Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), NASA’s latest space observatory, is seeking to overcome this hurdle in search of other planets like Earth.

Due to launch in 2025, the telescope will carry two instruments: a camera to study the mystery of dark energy distribution in the cosmos, and the first exoplanet imaging camera in space, the CGI (CoronaGraph Imager). Within the CGI ABB is currently working in collaboration with Nüvü Camera toward the supplier selection for the exo-planet camera control electronic in 2020.

Together, the optical components consisting of a system of masks, prisms, detectors and self-flexing mirrors, block the glare from a distant host star to reveal the dimmer light from the suite of planets orbiting closely around it. At the end of this intricate light processing sequence, ABB’s camera will collect the residual light from the exoplanets. The WFIRST is a $3.2 billion project that will provide the first image of exoplanets in reflected light. A mandatory step if we ever hope to snap a close-up picture of a distant earth in the future.

Driving across Mars

Gasses emitted by equipment can interfere with the sensitive instruments used in satellites and other space vehicles, impeding precise measurements and analytics of their surroundings. Given the harsh conditions on Mars, with its very thin atmosphere high in carbon dioxide, intense radiation and extreme low temperatures, NASA needed equipment that would not create any emissions for their Mars mission. The answer: Ty-Rap made with ETFE, a sophisticated fluoropolymer related to Teflon™.

  • Ty-Rap goes where no one has gone before
  • Ty-Rap made with ETFE, a sophisticated fluoropolymer related to Teflon™ is used in NASA’s Martian rove

Initially invented to bundle cables with unparalleled strength and reliability, ABB’s self-clinching cable ties have become an essential part of the modern world. Today, Ty-Rap cable ties come in heat-resistant varieties, along with product lines that are resistant to UV rays, harsh chemicals and extreme heat and cold and are used high above the ground to hold cables in airplanes as well as below sea level as part of drilling platforms. A version has been infused with special materials to make it easily detectable should it drop into any food processing lines, while other versions of the product are designed to kill microbes on their surface. Yet another version, designed to withstand the radiation and vacuum of space, rest on the surface of Mars with NASA’s Martian rover.

Last year, ABB produced its 28 billionth Ty-Rap cable, celebrating the 60th anniversary of a product that has become an essential part of the modern world. Tied together, Ty-Rap cable ties could reach from the earth to the moon 22 times.

Monitoring Earth

While the exploration of the worlds around us continues, the same space-based technologies are equally well-applied to learning more about the one we’re living on. Many of the satellites that orbit the Earth, use ABB’s Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer technology to help collect data on parameters such as moisture, pollution, temperature and humidity that affect weather patterns. With global warming posing a major threat to public health, biodiversity, agriculture, and other aspects of our planet, the data gathered by the FTIR already provide unique insights into greenhouse gases and accurately measure carbon dioxide levels.

GOSAT-2 ©Mitsubishi Electric
GOSAT-2 ©Mitsubishi Electric

ABB’s FTIR technology in the form of the spectral separation engine, more commonly referred to as an interferometer, is part of the Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite-2 (GOSAT-2), launched by Japan in October 2018 and its older brother GOSAT-1, launched in 2009. With the GOSAT pair each orbiting the Earth 15 times a day, the ABB interferometers help gather more than 100,000 precise measurements of carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, carbon monoxide and oxygen in the atmosphere. The resulting data is used by Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Study (NIES), to produce detailed maps highlighting greenhouse gas distribution across the globe and any strong seasonal variations. With these maps, scientists are also able to pinpoint where the gases are originating from. The data being collected by the GOSATs is proving useful for confirming country emissions, enabling action to be taken, backed up by irrefutable evidence of the contents and extent of their emissions.

With urgent action needing to be taken to minimize any further rises in greenhouse gases, the data gathered by GOSAT is also proving invaluable in helping the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPCC) to shape global policy on emissions reduction.

Also the commercial field is benefitting from ABB’s innovation beyond Earth’s surface. Examples range from NASA’s newest generation of polar orbit weather satellites (JPSS), which are being used to improve the timeliness and accuracy of weather forecasts for up to seven days, to water companies deploying satellite imagery as part of their leakage management toolkits.


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