Some improvements have been made in the design and fabrication of blackbody sensors (BBSs) used to measure the temperature of a heater core in a vacuum furnace. Each BBS consists of a ring of thermally conductive, high-melting-temperature material with two tantalum-sheathed thermocouples attached at diametrically opposite points. The name “blackbody sensor” reflects the basic principle of operation. Heat is transferred between the ring and the furnace heater core primarily by blackbody radiation, heat is conducted through the ring to the thermocouples, and the temperature of the ring (and, hence, the temperature of the heater core) is measured by use of the thermocouples.

Two main requirements have guided the development of these BBSs: (1) The rings should have as high an emissivity as possible in order to maximize the heat-transfer rate and thereby maximize temperature-monitoring performance and (2) the thermocouples must be joined to the rings in such a way as to ensure long-term, reliable intimate thermal contact. The problem of fabricating a BBS to satisfy these requirements is complicated by an application-specific prohibition against overheating and thereby damaging nearby instrumentation leads through the use of conventional furnace brazing or any other technique that involves heating the entire BBS and its surroundings. The problem is further complicated by another application-specific prohibition against damaging the thin tantalum thermocouple sheaths through the use of conventional welding to join the thermocouples to the ring.

The first BBS rings were made of graphite. The tantalum-sheathed thermocouples were attached to the graphite rings by use of high-temperature graphite cements. The ring/thermocouple bonds thus formed were found to be weak and unreliable, and so graphite rings and graphite cements were abandoned.

Now, each BBS ring is made from one of two materials: either tantalum or a molybdenum/titanium/zirconium alloy. The tantalum-sheathed thermocouples are bonded to the ring by laser brazing. The primary advantage of laser brazing over furnace brazing is that in laser brazing, it is possible to form a brazed connection locally, without heating nearby parts to the flow temperature of the brazing material. Hence, it is possible to comply with the prohibition against overheating nearby instrumentation leads. Also, in laser brazing, unlike in furnace brazing, it is possible to exert control over the thermal energy to such a high degree that it becomes possible to braze the thermocouples to the ring without burning through the thin tantalum sheaths on the thermocouples.

The brazing material used in the laser brazing process is a titanium-boron paste. This brazing material can withstand use at temperatures up to about 1,400°C. In thermal-cycling tests performed thus far, no debonding between the rings and thermocouples has been observed. Emissivity coatings about 0.001 in. (≈0.025 mm) thick applied to the interior surfaces of the rings have been found to improve the performance of the BBS sensors by raising the apparent emissivities of the rings. In thermal-cycling tests, the coatings were found to adhere well to the rings.

This work was done by Jeff Farmer and Chris Coppens of Marshall Space Flight Center and J. Scott O’Dell, Timothy N. McKechnie, and Elizabeth Schofield of Plasma Processes Inc. For further information, contact Sammy Nabors, MSFC Commercialization Assistance Lead, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Refer to MFS-32095-1.


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2009 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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