How ISS Astronauts Stay Cool with Precision Tech

The quadrupole is a pivotal component in mass spectrometry, ultimately determining the device’s success. This compact part can make or break the accuracy of the readings, often with life-altering stakes, and it all comes down to its manufacturing quality and precision. Unfortunately, even the most sophisticated mass spectrometry device falls short without a high-quality quadrupole. The quadrupole acts as a filter, sorting ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio, and any slight imperfections can skew the results, leading to inaccurate and unreliable readings. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of mass spectrometry accuracy through the lens of an astronaut, focusing on how a groundbreaking handheld mass spectrometry device – and the ultra-precise quadrupole inside it – transformed how International Space Station (ISS) occupants manage comfort control.

A Handheld Mass Spectrometry Device Detects Heat-Inducing Ammonia Leaks from ISS During Spacewalks

Our customer, Stanford Research Systems (SRS), specializes in producing precision measurement instruments for mass spectrometry specifically designed to identify and analyze chemical compounds based on their mass-to-charge ratio. SRS’s commitment to quality and precision is crucial in mass spectrometry, where accurate measurements are essential for reliable and useful data collection. By offering cutting-edge technology and innovative solutions for mass spectrometry, SRS has become a trusted partner for researchers and engineers in this field.

A few years ago, SRS explained that the International Space Station (ISS) was constantly pelted by space particles, which can puncture the station’s lightweight and thin-skinned shell, releasing ammonia. The ammonia is critical for protecting the station’s interior from the sun’s heat, so when it leaks, the temperature rises until the ammonia is replaced. To solve this problem, SRS developed a handheld, radar gun-like mass spectrometer for NASA that could detect ammonia signatures on spacewalks, using the natural vacuum environment of space to its advantage. With this device, astronauts could scan the space station’s shell and quickly identify any leaks, allowing them to patch the problem before it became critical. To make the device work, SRS needed ultra-precise quadrupoles to detect ammonia signatures accurately.

Having worked with SRS for several years, producing thousands of critical quadrupoles for laboratory research, we were familiar with its mind-blowing innovations and incredibly high production standards. So, when they came to us with this new space exploration mass spectrometry project for NASA that would keep astronauts aboard the ISS cool and comfortable, we were thrilled to help. However, maintaining tight geometric tolerances to ensure reading accuracy proved a significant obstacle, requiring an innovative solution as cutting-edge as the device itself.

The Challenges of Holding Tight Quadrupole Geometric Tolerances 

Maintaining the geometric tolerances of the quadrupole during the centerless grinding process was challenging due to its design. The four holes on one side of the component, which only go partially through, made it difficult to achieve the required diameter straightness, taper, and level of cylindricity. This inherent quadrupole design caused the part to deviate from its required roundness, a function of the grinding machine’s operation. Once the parts go out of round, bringing them back within tolerance is often tricky. SRS’s previous vendor couldn’t overcome this challenge – they weren’t getting the diameter quality and meeting the required tolerances. 

Harnessing our extensive experience manufacturing ultra-precise quadrupoles, we recognized the need to develop a specialized process to ensure that all tolerances stayed within the required range throughout the manufacturing process. In the following section, we’ll explain our approach and methodology that ultimately helped bring this exceptional handheld mass spectrometry concept to fruition.

Exceptional Quadrupole Precision + Rigorous Quality Control = A More Accurate Mass Spectrometer

Despite the mounting challenges of hitting the required geometric tolerances, we knew a way around them. We developed a specialized Swiss screw machining and ultra-precision centerless grinding process that minimized the impact of the quadrupole’s design on its geometric tolerances. By carefully controlling specific aspects of the machine’s operation, we achieved micro-level roundness and met the required tolerances. We also implemented a rigorous quality control system to continuously monitor each component, verifying that it met the geometric tolerances before moving to the next stage of the manufacturing process. Our diligent and intentional approach proved successful, enabling us to produce quadrupoles that met the tolerance requirements and ensured the high accuracy of SRS’s mass spectrometry device.

Are you embarking on a high-stakes mass spectrometry project? Discover our three tips for expediting the mass spectrometry R&D process on the blog.

Head to our website to learn more about the seemingly impossible challenges we solve for space exploration and other mission-critical industries every day. Our values-based company culture, perseverance, and commitment to excellence have earned us a reputation as a precision component manufacturer that can make the impossible possible. Contact us to learn more. 

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KVI Group, M&S Centerless Grinding and Meron Medical have merged to form KMM Group, Ltd. This exciting collaboration diversifies our offering and better allows us to think big and act boldly while maintaining the same precision and expertise you’ve come to expect.