On 6400 acres in the middle of a field in Sandusky, Ohio, there sit five massive buildings owned by the US government. Many of these buildings were built years ago in the hope that they might get used for groundbreaking technological development. However, most of these buildings now sit in disarray without a glimmer of hope for future use.
Except for one.
The Space Power Facility (SPF) is known to be the worlds largest vacuum chamber and it’s fully booked up through 2021.
It’s internal dimensions measure 30 meters high by 37 meters across – bringing its volume in at 22,653 m³ (800,000 ft³). On each side of the bay there stands a 15.24-m (50-ft) by 15.24-m (50-ft) loading door, 2 in total. While NASA doesn’t have a YouTube channel to the likes of the King of Random where they put anything they can think of inside of a vacuum, they do undertake or host quite a bit of space research.
Testing space equipment can require replicating the conditions in space. This isn’t hard to do on a smaller scale, but when you have large equipment that you need to test, you need a very large vacuum chamber.
The SPF can pump out around 30 tons of air held inside the chamber in about 8 hours. Once completed, there will only be 20 milligrams of air left. For comparison, that’d be the like removing 2500 Toyota Priuses and only leaving behind singular penny. Inside the chamber, giant quartz heat lamps can simulate solar radiation.
Using liquid nitrogen heat exchangers, crews can bring the internal temperature down to –160°C (–250°F) as well.
Built in 1969, the giant chamber was originally intended for the study of nuclear power but later found to be of perfect use for testing spacecraft. The entire vacuum chamber is made out of aluminum due to the fact that aluminum has increased radiation shielding properties. Encasing the aluminum dome is a layer of thick concrete to provide structural support and increased radiation protection.
While the SPF is of incredible size, the vacuum it creates doesn’t set any records. It can sustain a high vacuum of about 6 torr or 800 pascals. The earth’s atmosphere is 101325 pascals. Other smaller vacuum chambers can achieve near perfect vacuums of around 100 nanopascals. While not the strongest vacuum, the sheer size of the chamber still makes its capabilities rather incredible.
The landing systems for the Mars Pathfinder missions were tested inside the chamber, along with the Exploration rovers. In 2013, Space X utilized the chamber to test their payload fairing. The chamber is the only one like it in the world, and needless to say, it’s in high demand in the current space focused climate.
New additions to the chamber’s capabilities include the Reverberant acoustic test facility or RATF, a 2,860 m³ (101,189 ft³) reverberant acoustic chamber capable of achieving an empty-chamber overall sound pressure level of 163 dB; as well as the Mechanical vibration facility (MVF), used for testing variable frequency vibrations on equipment.
While this may be your first time hearing about the SPF or learning about its capabilities, you’ve probably seen it in a video before. In one of the most famous science viral videos, the BBC demonstrated that a bowling ball and feather fall at the same rate inside of a vacuum. If you haven’t watched that video, it’s amazing to see science in action.
Broadening the scope of the discussion on the Space Power Facility back out to where we started, it’s only one of the 5 buildings on 6400-acre site called the Plum Brook Field Station. As for the other 4? They have barely been used. Two are slated for demolition, 1 isn’t operational, and the last hasn’t ever been used.
As for the SPF and it’s immense capabilities, it will continue to be the testing ground for some of the most extensive space research in the coming decades. As the modern space race heats up, it’s likely only going to grow more and more needed by the scientific community.