Whirlpool engineers test their space fridge during zero-G plane flights.
By Alan Wolf, YSN
When it comes to kitchens, most will agree that Whirlpool has pretty much perfected the art of the refrigerator.
But deep space voyages? That’s a whole ’nother skill set.
That’s why, when NASA asked the world’s largest appliance maker to design a refrigerator for a possible mission to Mars, the vendor pulled together a global team of engineers from its operations around the world.
Working in collaboration with Purdue University and compressor manufacturer Air Squared, the team was tasked with developing a compact, oil-free fridge that could operate in zero gravity.
“We kind of had to start by throwing out much of what we already knew about designing a refrigerator and start from scratch,” said Whirlpool India engineer Rahul Chhajed. “When we design refrigerators for use here on Earth, we take for granted that the orientation of the refrigerator components will remain stable, and that gravity will be normal.”
Indeed, the challenges were many. “There were so many different things we had to think about,” added fellow team member Sanjesh Pathak. “Not only how to make it work in zero gravity, but how do we handle liquid and air flow, how do we handle defrosting?”
What’s more, the unit also had to fit within an International Space Station rack, and required front access for any in-flight repairs.
But by leveraging Purdue’s space flight physics, Air Squared’s components, and the collective brainpower of Whirlpool’s remote engineers, the team — in just a matter of months vs. years — developed a simple, stable and robust system the size of a microwave oven that could withstand the rigors of space.
But perhaps the project’s great challenge was testing the refrigerator … in zero gravity. According to team leader Alberto Gomes, that required sending a group of engineers and their sci-fi fridge on a series of airplane flights on which parabolic maneuvers mimicked the weightlessness of outer space.
“The nose goes up to about a 45-degree angle, and you’re basically pushing 1.8Gs until the plane begins to cross over, and then you go into zero G,” said team member Abhay Naik. Added colleague Kevin Zhang, “It was amazing to be able to experience zero gravity, and that was definitely something I didn’t think I would experience while working at Whirlpool.”
Gomes said the data collected during the zero-G flights looked very positive. “We’re hoping that the next step is to test the unit on the International Space Station.”
Whirlpool is no newcomer to NASA, having developed the world’s first “space kitchen,” space food, and tubular food delivery systems for the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions. Now, as it perfects its pint-sized space refrigerator, Whirlpool may soon extend its appliance prowess to Mars.