Why aren't superconductors used more in space?

Space Exploration Asked on November 30, 2021

The worst obstacle and the primary roadblock to using superconductors on Earth is the ambient temperature which necessitates a coolant like LN2 or even liquid Helium (and a lot of energy for creating these).

Achieving these temperatures in space is dirt cheap, a simple sun shield keeping the superconductor in shadow is all that’s needed.

As I read the mass breakdown of some ion engines, the cabling contributed quite a bit to the weight. There’s a lot of other applications where using superconductors would be superior. Maybe we could get ultra-low-power superconducting electronics. What about superconductor-based bearings for all the inertia wheel needs?

So why aren’t they used more commonly? What are some other obstacles?

One Answer

Although space is cold, vacuum is a pretty good insulator.

That means it is difficult to get rid of waste heat. Almost any action your spacecraft performs does produces heat that must be radiated away. Radiators are very sensitive to temperatures, being victims of the Tyranny of the Stefan-Boltzmann Equation. Their efficiency depends on the fourth power of their absolute temperature, so a spacecraft operating at 140K (The current temperature limit for high-temperature superconductors) has 16 times less efficient radiators. If you must have sixteen times the area of radiators to provide the same cooling, any mass savings by using the superconductors are efficiently cancelled out.

Another concern is reliability. If the thermal system fails, your spacecraft is dead.

Using superconductors will of course reduce the heat load a bit, but you still have waste heat production from on-board electronics, actuators and reaction wheels, and of course the Sun.

Answered by SE - stop firing the good guys on November 30, 2021

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