In response to the space industry’s pursuit of interplanetary travel and a continuous human presence in space, there is increasing focus on spacecraft that change configuration while in space. Flexible thermal radiators are being developed to accommodate various collapse and deployment mechanisms. An analytical model suggests that a lightweight polymeric material with imbedded micro heat pipe arrays can meet heat dissipation requirements while contributing less mass than competing flexible materials. The capillary pumping limit is evaluated as a function of operating temperature using two candidate working fluids. Using water, the maximum heat transport is 18 mW per channel at 140/160 °C. The maximum heat transport using methanol is 2.2 mW at 120 °C, an order-of magnitude difference. A thermal circuit model translates heat transport per channel into total radiator capacity as a function of source temperature and environmental sink temperature. Using water as the working fluid, the radiator capacity was shown to vary from 6.0 kW to 12.2 kW for source temperatures of 20 °C to 50 °C. For source temperatures of 40 °C and higher, the capacity meets or exceeds the dissipation requirements of a reference spacecraft design.

While evaluated, methanol is not recommended as a working fluid because its radiator capacity is two to three times lower than water. Although thermal system constraints place limits on the micro heat pipe operating range, design changes directed at alleviating capillary limitations should increase radiator capacity. Technical issues for further study include effects of film billowing, performance limitations related to vapor viscosity, working fluid diffusion, and chemical reactivity between case and working fluid. Compared to a competing graphite fiber weave, the polymeric material has an effective conductivity over ten times higher. Its area power density (in kW/m2) is 18% to 60% lower than the graphite weave, but its mass power density (in kW/kg) is several times higher. Greater flexibility and lower weight also make it more amenable to structural integration. Recently developed space-stable polymers offer resistance to harsh temperature and radiation environments, helping to clear the path toward a more extensive use of polymers within the space industry.

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