Space is already cold, so why do some space telescopes require cooling? Ex: infra-red telescope

What kind of cryocoolers are used, and why?

  • $\begingroup$ They're heated by the Sun. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ "Space is already cold, so why do some space telescopes require cooling?" An object in orbit around the Sun, at Earth's radius of orbit, would be getting the Sun like in the middle of the day, in the Sahara desert, but 24 hours a day x 7 days a week. Oh, and without any air to allow heat removal by convection. An object in orbit around Earth might occasionally slip into its shadow (not as often as most would expect) but that cooling time would probably be more than offset by the Earthshine. So.. it's not so cold in space, unless you go far out or try to get permanent shade. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ Usually space equipment uses radiators - they are wide, flat panels on pivoting axis, that are aligned "narrow side towards the Sun" so that they have large radiating area but only a very narrow irradiated one. If you look at photo of ISS, the long, narrow, dark panels - 8 pairs - are solar batteries. The white panels in groups of three, usually oriented perpendicularly to the solar panels, are the radiators. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ Space isn't particularly cold. Earth orbit, for example, has an equilibrium temperature of around 200K. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelT If you want a good image the recording media must be darker. I've used an IR camera that can see objects cooler than it is--they subtracted off a reference level of what the sensor recorded with a shutter closed. The result is obviously not all that good but it was good enough to see what was warm or cool in the room without the need of a cooled sensor. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 3:25

4 Answers 4


Space telescopes like Spitzer, Herschel, Planck, WISE, and in few years Webb, need to observe in the mid and far infrared wavelengths. The infrared radiation of normal spacecraft temperatures, even if kept cold by our standards, would look like a bright light at those wavelengths. (Google black-body radiation to learn more.) The infrared detectors need to be kept at single-digit Kelvin temperatures in order to not radiate into themselves, especially to have the necessary signal-to-noise ratio to be able to detect faint infrared sources in the universe. Hence the need for cryo-coolers and/or liquid Helium on those telescopes.

Planck needed to be so cold that it used Helium-3 instead of Helium-4, since the boiling point of He-3 is about one Kelvin lower than He-4.

You can look at this page for more information on the thermal control of Webb. The Webb cryocooler for the MIRI instrument has been one of the most difficult developments. Cryocoolers work on the same principles as your refrigerator, using compressors and heat exchangers. However they use Helium as the exchange fluid, and have multiple stages to get the temperature to single-digit Kelvins. Here is an informative paper on the MIRI cryocoolers.


In space, the notion of temperature is not the same as on Earth:

Temperature can only apply to matter which vacuum has not. Space is near vacuum, so its temperature is irrelevant to large and dense objects.

Satellites (including telescopes) are made out of matter and therefor can heat or cool. They are full of electronics that produce heat, and receive sunlight when not on night side of earth. Because space is made of vacuum, heat can not be exchanged by contact with colder matter (convection) , and therefor they must be cooled by radiation (emitting infrared). Because this is much less efficient than traditional cooling, a complex cooling system must be added.

TL;dNR: Space is not cold, and fans don't work well in space since there is no air.

  • $\begingroup$ The thermodynamic definition of temperature is good throughout the universe as far as we know. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Not according to Physics StackExchange. If you can improve the formulation, I welcome an edit :) $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Antzi space isn't a vacuum, just a very low-density medium, so the problem at that link doesn't apply. The interplanetary medium has a well-defined temperature (which varies with distance from the sun). But since its density is so very low, its heat capacity and its ability to conduct heat are practically nil and its temperature doesn't really matter. Objects in space gain and lose heat almost entirely through radiation. $\endgroup$
    – hobbs
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe it would be better to say that "space is cold, but things in space might not be cold" $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ @MaxWilliams - Maybe it would be even better to say that interplanetary space is hot (very hot!), but that this has nothing to do with the temperature of a macroscopic object in space. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 12:58

The density of space is really really thin. In the same way that water conducts heat much better than air, so air conducts it much better than space. In fact, even though the temperature might technically be very cold, in fact it doesn't matter, because that heat isn't transferred. Most of the heat that objects feel depends on their surface area, power usage, and area incident to the Sun. An object is really cold if it isn't in the Sunlight in space. Otherwise, it is warmer, typically at similar temperatures to Earth. Basically, the object reaches a temperature known as the Thermal Equilibrium. Near Earth, that is typically around room temperature (20 degrees C)

The spacecraft that need to be really cold essentially measure temperature throughout the cosmos. Every object produces a small amount of light, although it might not be visible. You can feel a fire if you are close, even if the wind was blowing the heat away from you. This feeling of heat is infrared, which is what these cold spacecraft measure. If the temperature is too high, then the signal is confused, much in the same way that it is difficult to see out of a dirty windshield if driving towards the sun. Something can be seen, but it is much more difficult to see.


Kanaga, something to consider:

The Earth is sitting in space!

The Earth gets hot (because of the Sun); other things sitting in space (the Moon, Mars, satellites, and so on) also get hot because of the Sun.

It's that simple, really.


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