We sat down with Leybold cryo product expert Joshua Miller to find out what makes vacuum technology so important to space research and what excites him about the industry. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Brian Hillegass: Why do you love working with vacuum and space research?
Joshua Miller: Vacuum research isn't widely known, but space research is a topic that most people can talk a little bit about. You can have conversations about it with almost anyone, from your family at the dinner table up to high-end NASA researchers, because most people understand how it can help us expand our reach in the universe. But what's lesser-known is the impact vacuum technology has had on advancing space research. Vacuum technology is the groundbreaking technology that aims to facilitate human life in space, so it is fundamental to our space-exploration ambitions.
By definition, a vacuum is the absence of all matter within a space. Vacuum technologists aim to help big operations like NASA and SpaceX create liveable environments for humans in vacuum conditions, i.e. space. From propulsion to life support systems, we try to figure out how all these things would work in space. We consider ourselves the enablers of space travel and space exploration.
Brian Hillegass: What is the coolest space project you have seen that utilizes vacuum?
Joshua Miller: One of the coolest projects for Leybold would have been the space chambers meant for xenon pumping. Xenon is used for space propulsion. It's ionized and ejected from a Hall thruster, producing a very small but sustainable force that allows spacecrafts to reach very high speeds, sometimes up to 500,000 miles per hour. Xenon is a very heavy gas and the turbomolecular pumps that are usually employed to pump the gas are highly susceptible to overheating. Leybold was challenged with designing a new pump that could handle xenon gas more effectively. Leybold overcame this challenge using a xenon cryopump which is an adaptation of another technology called a coldhead or coldfinger. This pump is very interesting because it allows NASA to test ion thrusters for months, or even years at a time. NASA isn't currently using this technology, but we're trying to break into that market. There are a couple of companies in Spain utilizing this specific pump. It allows for a very high pumping speed of xenon with minimal invasion to this system. This is important because a pump needs to be minimally invasive to the vacuum system—that is, maintain the vacuum without collapsing in on itself. A lot of pumps used in the past are very invasive and Leybold worked to solve this problem. A major challenge in the past was hydrogren accumulation, which can cause an explosion. But, since the xenon pump doesn't pump hydrogren, we eliminated that problem.
Brian Hilllegass: What are you most excited about seeing as you engage with space research?
Joshua Miller: I'm excited to see how vacuum pump technology evolves for space research and how we can find new applications for it. I think vacuum technology can provide more far-reaching solutions, and I'm excited to see how Leybold will adapt to meet market needs.
Brian Hillegass: Why should a company choose Leybold as a vacuum partner in space?
Joshua Miller: As vacuum technologists, we're always looking to solve problems. Not only can we handle the xenon thruster technology to support scientific research, but Leybold is also a full-service supplier of vacuum components, both off-the-shelf and customized, as well as accompanying accessories and instrumentation. We are very agile and can offer very forward-thinking solutions to problems.
Brian Hillegas: What advancements in vacuum technology deliver the most advantages for space applications?
Joshua Miller: I think if you look at the xenon thruster pumps, you'll see that we've taken old technology and applied it in a new way. Our xenon thruster pumps condense the vapor into ice, just like our other cryopumps.