Are composite materials the future of space travel? Composites – a combination of chemicals, elements, or materials – are increasingly seen as one of the most promising advancements in space travel, both manned and unmanned.
How are composites impacting the future of deep space technology, and what should we be paying attention to?
- Composite Cryotanks
What are Cryotanks? Cryogenic tanks made of composite materials are used to house rocket fuel (liquid oxygen or hydrogen). For long missions, particularly hypothetical Mars travel through NASA’s Space Launch System, cryotanks will be indispensable. Previously made of metal, today’s composite cryogenic tanks are much lighter, to the tune of 30%. They’re significantly more cost effective when building and launching, too. The weight savings of epoxy prepreg resin tanks is substantial - in that every pound of reduced weight in fuel storage translates to additional supplies that can be carried on lengthy manned space missions.
- Laser-Arranged Composite Materials
Composites aren’t just useful for fuel storage, they’ve also become critical to most spacecraft components. From the control board to the captain’s chairs, composites like fiberglass offer easy customization and significant time and cost-savings over traditional materials like metal and glass. Challenges arise when building composites involves multiple layering, a process that can be slow and even inaccurate. Lasers may be the answer. Laser-guided layups allow for immediate engineering changes (i.e. addition of segmented plies, for example) and decreased reliance on physical templates. And when composites are made of high-cost materials such as carbon-fiber, reducing even minimal amounts of “scrap” can add thousands of dollars back into a project’s budget.
- Affordable Exploration
One of the most exciting features composites are bringing to space exploration is relative affordability. Thanks to highly-accurate CNC machines and readily available composite manufacturing materials, scientists are able to create space-ready vehicles and satellites at a fraction of previous costs. Seen as the possible future of manned space travel, commercial space exploration has turned to composites for affordability and fast turnaround times, both essential to profitability. Composites’ durability, strength, and lightness have made launching small exploratory satellites at a private level feasible.
Space is still the final frontier, but the composites industry is making it more accessible every day. From NASA to SpaceX, few explorative operations aren’t drastically increasing their use of composite materials. Says John Vickers of NASA, “If you’re a company or a government agency that’s trying to accomplish big space missions, and you’re not using composites today, you will be in the next decade.”
B&W Fiberglass is heavily invested in the future of the greater composites market. The manufacturing implications of better, stronger, more customizable composites are just being realized. How can we help your project succeed?