Scientists test heating and cooling for moon and Mars on ISS

The idea of a space-age thermostat takes on a whole new meaning.
Technicians load cargo into the Cygnus space that carried Purdue University experiment
Technicians load cargo into the Cygnus space that carried the Purdue University experiment

NASA/Danielle Johnson 

Imagine waking up one day on the Moon or Mars, gazing out your window at the barren yet awe-inspiring landscape. It might sound like something out of a science fiction novel but believe it or not, humanity is getting closer to turning this dream into a reality. 

Interplanetary habitats

Planets like Mars, which have always seemed like distant dots in the night sky, are now at the forefront of our plans for interplanetary colonization. But there's a catch – creating livable conditions, there is no walk in the park.

Think about it: we're accustomed to our cozy homes and comfortable climates on Earth. We have heating and air conditioning systems that keep us warm in the cold and cool in the heat. But what happens when we step onto the Moon or Mars, where the temperatures swing to extremes we can hardly imagine? Suddenly, the idea of a space-age thermostat takes on a new meaning.

That’s where a Purdue University experiment on the International Space Station comes in. In its press release published on Friday, the institution detailed its latest experiment, the Flow Boiling and Condensation Experiment (FBCE), designed to study how boiling and condensation work in reduced gravity. Traditionally, our understanding of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems has been rooted in Earth's gravity.

But with the dream of lunar and Martian living becoming a reality with each passing day and space launch, the need for systems that can operate effectively in altered gravitational fields and extreme temperatures becomes invaluable. 

Flow boiling and condensation experiment

Scientists test heating and cooling for moon and Mars on ISS
Issam Mudawar’s research on heat transfer could enable space habitats to be built in extreme environments like the moon.


Issam Mudawar, Purdue’s Betty Ruth and Milton B. Hollander Family Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said, "We have developed over a hundred years’ worth of understanding of how heat and cooling systems work in Earth’s gravity, but we haven’t known how they work in weightlessness."

Part of NASA's Glenn Research Center, the FBCE arrived at the space station on August 4 via Northrop Grumman’s 19th commercial resupply services mission (NG-19) for NASA. The mission also carried additional components for the FBCE, which has been collecting data on the space station since August 2021.

The FBCE consists of two modules: one for measuring boiling and one for measuring condensation. The current mission aims to delve into condensation dynamics in a weightless environment. These experiments will remain in orbit until 2025, offering an unprecedented opportunity for the scientific community to leverage this unique hardware.

Key data from experiments

The implications of FBCE's findings are nothing short of revolutionary. Not only do they promise to revolutionize HVAC systems for lunar and Martian settlements, but they could also enhance spacecraft technology, enabling them to travel longer distances by employing innovative power and propulsion systems. Boiling and condensation, as opposed to other methods, emerge as remarkably efficient ways to transfer heat in spacecraft equipped with nuclear thermal or electric power systems.

The FBCE is one of NASA’s most extensive and complex fluid physics research experiments. Mudawar’s team has been working on it for 11 years, collaborating with NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which engineered and built the flight hardware.

Mudawar’s team is preparing a series of research papers based on the data from the FBCE, adding to more than 60 papers they have published on reduced gravity and fluid flow since the project’s inception.

They have also developed three sets of predictive tools to analyze the data and make it useful for engineers and scientists. One set of tools provides equations for designing space systems, another reveals fundamental information about fluid physics, and the third creates computational fluid dynamics models.

“We are ready to literally close the book on the whole science of flow and boiling in reduced gravity,” Mudawar said.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board