It is a cool innovation that is meant to cool machines down. The even cooler thing is that it was given a Swahili name — Baridi Sana. It is created in Italy with the input of Machakos University.
Cool things don’t end there because through Baridi Sana, Kenya will be in a small club of countries that will be holding experiments more than 350 kilometres above the ground in a space station constructed by China.
In simple terms, the space station is a 100-tonne laboratory being constructed incrementally, currently home to three Chinese astronauts, that is orbiting the earth at 27,000 kilometres per hour since its first piece was launched in April 2021.
From Kenya, if you know where you look, you can spot it as a shiny speck racing through the sky in the twilight hours.
Inside that space station, Baridi Sana will be sent to be tested on how it behaves at such heights. For your information, Baridi Sana is made to cool the small but feature-rich satellites that generate lots of heat as they perform the functions they are programmed to do while in orbit.
Inside the laboratory, its performance will be measured by the sensors that will be doing heat analytics and sending the data back to the surface.
Cooling is integral in electronics. Your computer has a fan that runs faster when the internal components heat up. Your refrigerator has a system that gauges the temperature of the things in it and runs a refrigerant to ensure a desired temperature.
With Baridi Sana, the principle of refrigeration is taken a step further. We spoke to Dr Charles Mwaniki, a senior lecturer at Machakos University’s School of Engineering and Technology, to explain it in detail.
“If you look at the back of your fridge there is a pump and there are copper pipes and there is some fluid that is circulated. We call that one single phase pump loop system,” he said.
“In Baridi Sana, we have a two-phase cooling system where we have one part which makes use of evaporation on one phase and condensation on the other phase. This is a system where we are able to achieve that heat cooling within a small area,” added Dr Mwaniki.
Baridi Sana has been in the pipeline since 2018 and it was brought to life by a grant from the United Nations.
“This is the genesis of Baridi Sana: there is a cooperation between the United Nations and China on the utilisation of the China space station. They announced a proposal for any interested parties who could be given space in this [space station]. When that proposal went out, Machakos University and the Sapienza University of Rome [which do research together and are bound by an MoU] also responded to that call for a proposal. And we brought a proposal. Our proposal was to come up with a better cooling system for satellites,” he recounts.
“We wrote the proposal and we submitted it. And we were lucky to win and were awarded. And now we have been developing the project,” explained Dr Mwaniki, who is in charge of the project on behalf of Machakos University.
Besides the Kenyan and the Italian universities, the other main player in the Baridi Sana project is an Italian company called In-Quattro, which specialises in cooling systems. In-Quattro handled the overall design of the cooling system, the dimensions and the selection of the cooling system parts.
Sapienza University, on the other hand, tackled the specifications to ensure that it meets the standards required for it to be part of the laboratory.
Dr Mwaniki explained the role played by Machakos University.
“Because of our expertise and the faculty specialisation, we were assigned with the simulation of the fluid motion. Because of the nature of the operation of this cooling system, Machakos University was to do the simulation. Before you construct a circuit, you have to simulate and see how the performance is even before you do the construction. So, we were assigned that task of numerical simulation of the cooling system design and also evaluate its effectiveness as far as the heat transfer is concerned,” he said.
“We also participate in the in-flight and post-flight data analysis. As I said, we’ll be collecting data from space to the ground station and then from there we analyse and see whether we are meeting the objectives or not,” added Dr Mwaniki, the dean of the School of Engineering and Technology.
The United Nations funding was to the tune of 220,000 (Sh26.7 million).
A July 2019 newsletter by Machakos University, titled the Biannual Research and Innovation Bulletin, discusses Baridi Sana.
“The collaboration between Machakos University and Sapienza University of Rome and In-Quattro has begun bearing fruit after the three partners won a United Nations grant for their project entitled ‘Baridi Sana-High Performance Micro-2-Phase Cooling Systems for Space Applications,’” the newsletter reads in part.
“The collaborative project seeks to conduct research and testing for the next generation of cooling systems for space applications by replacing ordinary liquid cooling loops with two-phase cooling systems,” it adds.
The satellites that Baridi Sana is meant to help cool are relatively small but perform functions that make them heat up by a large degree.
“A satellite has got communication systems: radar, communication systems, among others. Radar and antennas dissipate a lot of heat. And as demand increases, there is a need for stronger antennas and radars. So, the higher the device requirement, the more heat is dissipated. And when electronic devices encounter so much heat, they malfunction, meaning that even the data it sends may not be valid because the devices there have malfunctioned. So, how to deal with the heat is very crucial. And our objective was to come up with a cooling system that can meet those stringent requirements of heat dissipation in space,” said Dr Mwaniki.
Baridi Sana is expected to be sent to the Chinese space station – named Tiangong – any time between now and next year. The final component of the space station is expected to be launched from China later this month to be attached to where it was designed to be.
“[Baridi Sana] was to be launched latest 2023,” said Dr Mwaniki. “So, any time between now and next year, it’s going to be launched.”
He added: “We are in the final stages of development. The assembly is done at Sapienza University. There have been some delays in getting the specifications from the China Manned Space Agency. It’s the body that deals with Chinese space missions, so they are the ones who normally give the specifications. But now the specifications are there, and it’s the final stages of assembling.”
Kenya, through Baridi Sana, is in the first batch of 17 countries that will be in the Tiangong to conduct experiments.
In February, the acting director-general of the Kenya Space Agency, Col Hillary Kipkosgei, mentioned Baridi Sana in a speech in Vienna at a gathering of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
“The collaborative project ‘Baridi Sana – High-Performance Micro 2-Phase Cooling System for Space Applications’ … will be tested on-board China’s space station,” he said.
The tests on Baridi Sana aim at creating a next-generation cooling system.
“This microgravity fluid physics and combustion proposal aims to research and test the next generation of cooling systems that use an organic and non-toxic cooling agent,” says an article in the April 2021 edition of the magazine All About Space.
“This is a novel concept and is therefore of high value for human space exploration systems as well as potentially reducing the carbon footprint of cooling systems on earth,” it adds.
The United States, a long-running adversary of China on matters space, has been jittery about the Asian power’s collaboration with Kenya.
Low earth orbit
In July 2020, an official from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), told US lawmakers that US space supremacy was at risk due to the space station dealings.
“China is rapidly building what they call the ‘Chinese International Space Station’, and they’re rapidly marketing that space station to all of our international partners,” said the official, named Jim Bridenstine.
“It would be a tragedy if, after all of this time, and all of this effort, we (US) were to abandon low earth orbit and cede that territory,” he added.
Dr Mwaniki told the Nation that it is a moment of pride for Kenya to take part in the project.
“It’s pride, because everybody will be asking what ‘baridi sana’ is and they’ll be told it’s a Kiswahili word meaning this and this. So, it adds value to our language because we’re also proud of our Kiswahili; that it’s recognised internationally,” he said.
“It will now place Kenya into international limelight; that Kenya is also not left behind in terms of space exploration. So, it is a good thing. The world will know that there is an African country that is also daring to venture into space exploration. So, it’s a mileage to Kenya and also the interaction and the exposure will also open doors for more projects,” added the don.
He also noted that his participation in the project has taught him many lessons on the importance of collaboration in major science projects, saying it is a fallacy for a scientist to think that he or she can work alone.
Machakos University has also worked on another space project — the development of a cube satellite called Simba that is currently orbiting in space.
“Simba is about tracking wild animals using a satellite in order to predict their movements. We did it in collaboration with Sapienza University and the Kenya Space Agency. We have not got enough data to start analysing but soon we’ll be able to analyse it,” said Dr Mwaniki.