Space is cold, but not cold enough. For satellites carrying sophisticated sensors, keeping the components at cryogenic temperatures is vital, but doing so while keeping down the weight and power requirements isn't easy. Lockheed Martin’s High Power Microcryocooler is designed with both of these things in mind, and it now packs three times the power density of previous systems.

Ever since the first high-resolution infrared sensors and similar components were sent into space the problem of how to keep them cold has vexed engineers. There are a number of ways of achieving this, such as cryostats containing liquid helium, but these are heavy, bulky, and expensive to launch.

One of Lockheed's alternatives is the High Power Microcryocooler, which is based on thirty years of developing similar systems. It's a mechanical system capable of over ten years of continuous operation, though it weighs less than a pound (0.4 kg).

Despite its lightweight, Lockheed says that the Microcryocooler is the industry’s highest power density cryocooling system capable of 150 watts per kilogram and can chill sensors to as low as -320° F (-195° C). Other space-rated cryocoolers only manage 30 to 60 watts per kilogram. This combination of increased efficiency with lower weight allows for lighter, more compact satellite designs that are cheaper to launch.

"The High Power Microcryocooler is making a large impact for small products," says Jeffrey Olson, a research scientist at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center. "Our previous design was a revolution in size, and now we’re taking it further and packing it with increased power. This will make a difference for technology in space, on naval ships and aboard aircraft."