NASA tests game changing composite cryogenic fuel tank

Jul 08, 2013

NASA recently completed a major space technology development milestone by successfully testing a pressurized, large cryogenic propellant tank made of composite materials. The composite tank will enable the next generation of rockets and spacecraft needed for space exploration.

Cryogenic propellants are gasses chilled to subfreezing temperatures and condensed to form highly combustible liquids, providing high-energy propulsion solutions critical to future, long-term human exploration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Cryogenic propellants, such as liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, have been traditionally used to provide the enormous thrust needed for large rockets and NASA's shuttle.

In the past, propellant tanks have been fabricated out of metals. The almost 8 foot- (2.4 meter) diameter composite tank tested at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is considered game changing because composite tanks may significantly reduce the cost and weight for launch vehicles and other .

"These successful tests mark an important milestone on the path to demonstrating the composite needed to accomplish our next generation of deep space missions," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This investment in game changing will help enable NASA's exploration of deep space while directly benefiting American industrial capability in the manufacturing and use of composites."

Switching from metallic to composite construction holds the potential to dramatically increase the performance capabilities of future space systems through a dramatic reduction in weight. A potential initial target application for the composite technology is an upgrade to the upper stage of NASA's Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.

Built by Boeing at their Tukwila, Wash. facility, the tank arrived at NASA in late 2012. Engineers insulated and inspected the tank, then put it through a series of pressurized tests to measure its ability to contain at extremely cold temperatures. The tank was cooled down to -423 degrees Fahrenheit and underwent 20 pressure cycles as engineers changed the pressure up to 135 psi.

"This testing experience with the smaller tank is helping us perfect manufacturing and test plans for a much larger tank," said John Vickers, the cryogenic tank project manager at Marshall. "The 5.5 meter (18 foot) tank will be one of the largest composite ever built and will incorporate design features and manufacturing processes applicable to an 8.4 meter (27.5 foot) tank, the size of metal tanks found in today's large launch vehicles."

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The NASA and Boeing team are in the process of manufacturing the 18 foot (5.5 meter)-diameter composite tank that also will be tested at Marshall next year.

"The tank manufacturing process represents a number of industry breakthroughs, including automated fiber placement of oven-cured materials, fiber placement of an all-composite tank wall design that is leak-tight and a tooling approach that eliminates heavy-joints," said Dan Rivera, the Boeing cryogenic tank program manager at Marshall.

Composite tank joints, especially bolted joints, have been a particularly troubling area prone to leaks in the past. Boeing and its partner, Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., developed novel tooling to eliminate the need for heavy joints.

"Boeing has experience building large structures, and Marshall has the facilities and experience to test large tanks," explained John Fikes, the cryogenic tank deputy project manager at Marshall. "It has been a team effort, with Boeing working with NASA to monitor the tests and gather data to move forward and build even larger, higher performing tanks."

"Game changing is about developing transformative technologies that enable new missions and new capabilities," said Stephen Gaddis, the program manager for the Game Changing Development Program at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "Technological advances like the cryogenic tank can ripple throughout the aerospace industry and change the way we do business."

NASA's cryogenic storage tank research is part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA's future missions. For more information about NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit: www.nasa.gov/spacetech

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xel3241
not rated yet Jul 08, 2013
This is not unlike building a faster horse versus constructing an automobile. Only a space elevator would be truly revolutionary enough to be "game changing [sic]".
Sanescience
5 / 5 (2) Jul 09, 2013
True one mans revolutionary can be another mans incremental upgrade. Space elevators won't happen for a long long time though. Only when building a large number of them seems affordable would it be a good idea. Because were going to loose some of them in the process of learning how to properly build them.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2013
I agree about this being just a small incremental step rather than a game changing advance.

What's needed is a way to get to space that doesn't involve squirting tons of propellant out the back. I doubt that a space elevator will ever be practical on Earth or the moon though. By the time it is doable, it'll probably be obsolete. The Earth has about the worst possible combination of factors for building a space elevator. It would require stationkeeping propulsion along its length as well as wave dampening ballast that could move up and down the length, otherwise both ends would want to whip around at thousands of miles per hour, and the top would bounce up and down several miles as the middle flexes and straightens. I don't see how it would ever be worth it. Mars is probably the best candidate for a space elevator, so maybe we'll build some there, if there's not a better option by then.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2013
Only a space elevator would be truly revolutionary enough to be "game changing

Yet it arguably makes more sense to do something you can than to try something you can't.

Space elevators - no matter how appealing the idea - aren't yet within reach. So it's prudent to develop the technologies that are. Most certainly these developments will find their ways into future systems (like space elevators) in one form or another.

And remember: a space elevator doesn't allow for interplanetary exploration of its own. It just gets you to orbit where you're then stuck without tanks like these that carry propellant. So having lighter tanks is a boon in any case.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2013
Space elevators - no matter how appealing the idea - aren't yet within reach. So it's prudent to develop the technologies that are
-But lucky for us there are real scientists who know that the only way to find out what is possible is to do research.

"David Smitherman of NASA/Marshall's Advanced Projects Office has compiled plans for such an elevator that could turn science fiction into reality. His publication, Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium, is based on findings from a space infrastructure conference held at the Marshall Space Flight Center last year. The workshop included scientists and engineers from government and industry representing various fields such as structures, space tethers, materials, and Earth/space environments.

"This is no longer science fiction," said Smitherman. "We came out of the workshop saying, 'We may very well be able to do this.'"
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2013
So it's prudent to develop the technologies that are
-But how will we know what tech we will need unless we start experimenting now?

"...construction is not feasible today but it could be toward the end of the 21st century. "First we'll develop the technology," said Smitherman. "In 50 years or so, we'll be there."

"The LiftPort Group is funding a precursor project by sending a robot two kilometers up via a cable and building a test platform of high-altitude balloons that are tethered to the ground."

"LiftPort's proposed research will develop practical, near-term solutions for construction and expansion of a Lunar Elevator. The study will include characterization of materials; analysis of required rocketry and robotics; and evaluation of landing sites and methods of anchoring to the Lunar surface. Additionally, Ribbon spooling, infrastructure deployment, and micrometeorite mitigation techniques will be explored."
http://liftport.c...dex.html