If space is cold at 2.7 Kelvin and heat can't escape in a vacuum then why is the ISS wrapped in space blankets if the sun is hot?


3 Answers 3


As noted in another question, the ISS faces some pretty hot temps. Remember, the Sun heats radiantly. When you're sitting in that much radiant heat, without an atmosphere to dissipate it, you're going to get hot really quick (emphasis mine)

Without thermal controls, the temperature of the orbiting Space Station's Sun-facing side would soar to 250 degrees F (121 C), while thermometers on the dark side would plunge to minus 250 degrees F (-157 C).


"In space there is no air for conduction or convection," he added. Space is a radiation-dominated environment. Objects heat up by absorbing sunlight and they cool off by emitting infrared energy, a form of radiation which is invisible to the human eye.

As a result, insulation for the International Space Station doesn't look like the fluffy mat of pink fibers you often find in Earth homes. The Station's insulation is instead a highly-reflective blanket called Multi-Layer Insulation (or MLI) made of Mylar and dacron.

"The Mylar is aluminized so that solar thermal radiation can't get through it," explains Hong.

  • 40
    $\begingroup$ In other words, the ISS needs space blankets because the sun is hot. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ Would it be better to think of the mylar blanket as a flexible mirror to reflect the radiation? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 4:55
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn That's literally what they describe it as $\endgroup$
    – Machavity
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ This also points out a problem that a lot of things in space have to take into account. One side can be hundreds of degrees, while the side facing away from the sun will be minus hundreds of degrees. That's a serious temperature gradient. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 20:01

Insulation can function in both ways, keeping heat on whichever side is desired. In space limiting the amount of thermal input from the sun is very valuable since that heat is easily acquired but hard to get rid of.


'Heat can't escape in a vacuum' is false. While there's no air to absorb the surface heat and transport it elsewhere you're still losing heat through infrared radiation.
You're still losing significant amounts of heat while the ISS is in earth's shadow.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While true, ISS is concerned with shedding heat and reducing the gain of more heat, not with the retention of heat. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 19:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ They are concerned with both. Plenty of hardware has heaters on it too to keep things from getting too cold. $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 20:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.