JAXA makes use of water bottle expertise for pattern return emissions from the ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) is not only the largest and most modern orbital research facility ever built, it is arguably the most important research facility we have. With its state-of-the-art facilities and microgravity environment, the ISS is able to conduct lucrative experiments that lead to advances in astrobiology, astronomy, medicine, biology, space weather and meteorology, and materials science.

Unfortunately, the cost of shipping experiments to and from the ISS is quite high and something only a handful of space agencies can currently afford. To address this, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Tiger Corporation teamed up in 2018 to develop a new type of container that would reduce the cost of returning samples to Earth. With the success of their original design, JAXA and Tiger are looking for a reusable version that will allow sample returns from the ISS on a regular basis.

Founded in 1923, Tiger is an international company based in Osaka, Japan specializing in vacuum insulation and related technologies. This technology, with which the company has been manufacturing insulated water bottles for decades, is also used in space research. In recent years, JAXA began exploring the technology to create storage containers that could keep experimental samples cool as they returned to Earth.

Outline of the mission of the small recovery capsule being developed by JAXA. Image credit: JAXA

In September 2018, JAXA launched the Kounotori 7 (HTV-7) mission, the seventh flight of the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV). While transporting supplies to the ISS, JAXA decided to use this flight to validate a new method of transporting samples of protein crystals (which were part of a growth experiment in Japan’s Kibo laboratory module) back from the ISS.

This consisted of a special sample container (NPL-A100) developed jointly by JAXA and Tiger, which was inserted into the HTV Small Reentry Capsule (HSRC). Because the re-entry capsule was too small to rely on an electrical cooling system, JAXA and Tiger needed a sample container that relied on “passive isolation” methods to keep its contents at stable temperatures.

In the end, they used the same technology Tiger uses to make stainless steel thermos flasks to create a double-walled, vacuum-insulated container that weighed about 9.7 kg (21.4 lb). As Keiji Nakai, Manager of the Product Development Group (Section 3) at Tiger, told Universe Today via email, the container had to meet some very strict requirements:

“The double-walled vacuum container for this mission had to keep the temperature inside the container at 4 ° C ± 2 ° C (39.2 ° F ± 3.6 ° F) for four or more days and protect the container from the massive 40G exposure upon landing in the ocean after returning to earth. “

Components of the payload container presented to journalists after the Kounotori 7 mission. Image credit: JAXA

Several ice packs were also included with the capsule to ensure that the temperature of the container remained stable. The mission was a success and represented an important milestone for JAXA, which previously did not have the ability to recover materials independently from the ISS. Like many space agencies that participated in the ISS, JAXA was dependent on Roscosmos and NASA to provide transportation services.

The next step in the JAXA-Tiger collaboration involves the development of a smaller, lighter and more durable container that can keep samples stable at lower temperatures and for longer. But the strictest requirement is that it must be durable enough to be used more than once. According to Tiger representatives, these and other specifications were incorporated into the design of the second-generation NPS-A100 container:

“We have reduced the weight of the container from 9.7 kg (21.4 lb) to almost 3 kg (6.6 lb) while also making it more compact. The addition of ice packs will maintain the temperature within 20 ° C ± 2 ° C (68 ° F ± 3.6 ° F) for a minimum of twelve days from the time the re-entry capsule exits the ISS until it lands back on earth. We have also made the container more durable so that it will last at least three years or six uses. “

The NPS-A100 is likely to be transported to the ISS as part of the CRS-22 commercial replenishment mission scheduled for early June, during which a SpaceX Crew Dragon will transport supplies and experiments to the ISS. Once again, container technology will be used to return protein crystals that are part of the ongoing biomedical research taking place in the Kibo laboratory in the Japanese Experimental Module (JEM) of the ISS.

This research leads to advances in medicine and the development of new remedies and drugs. In addition to sample containers, the technology resulting from this collaboration has numerous commercial and industrial applications. This includes transport solutions for medical samples and reagents that have to be stored under strict temperature conditions.

It could also lead to new applications for thermal management in electric and hybrid cars. But perhaps the most interesting application is in the development of next-generation building materials that can be used in extreme environments – like Antarctica (where research stations need to save heat!)

“The application possibilities of our vacuum insulation technology are limitless,” says Tiger on their website. “This technology will support top fields in every industry and help them lead us into a dynamic, exciting future.”

To update: It has since been confirmed that the new vacuum container will be brought to the ISS on June 3 as part of the CRS-22 cargo replenishment mission aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft. Tiger Corporation also plans to launch a new line of products for the US market, tentatively scheduled for September.

Further reading: JAXA, Tiger Corporation

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