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NASA Tests Game Changing Composite Cryogenic Fuel Tank
July 2, 2013

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WASHINGTON -- 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, traditionally have been used to provide the enormous thrust needed for large rockets and NASA's space shuttle.

In the past, propellant tanks have been fabricated out of metals. The almost 8-foot-diameter (2.4 meter) 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 space missions.

"These successful tests mark an important milestone on the path to demonstrating the composite cryogenic tanks 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 space technology 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 liquid hydrogen at extremely cold temperatures. The tank was cooled down to -423 degrees Fahrenheit and under went 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 18-foot (5.5-meter) tank will be one of the largest composite propellant tanks ever built and will incorporate design features and manufacturing processes applicable to a 27.5-foot (8.4-meter) tank, the size of metal tanks found in today's large launch vehicles."

The NASA and Boeing team are in the process of manufacturing the 18-foot-diameter (5.5-meter) 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 composite 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."

View a video about cryotank manufacturing and testing here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRutJfOsglI

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:

http://www.nasa.gov/spacetech

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David E. Steitz
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1730
david.steitz@nasa.gov

 

Tracy McMahan / Janet Anderson
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
256-544-0034
tracy.mcmahan@nasa.gov / janet.l.anderson@nasa.gov

 

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IRutJfOsglI
An almost 8-foot-diameter (2.4-meter) propellant tank made of composite materials successfully completed pressurized testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
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Technicians move the insulated, almost 8-foot-diameter (2.4-meter) tank to the Hydrogen Cold Flow Test Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The historic stand used to test Saturn V stages and the Space Shuttle external tank is directly behind the hydrogen test facility and houses the control room for the tests.
Technicians move the insulated, almost 8-foot-diameter (2.4-meter) tank to the Hydrogen Cold Flow Test Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
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NASA/MSFC/David Olive
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This insulated, almost 8-foot-diameter (2.4-meter) composite cryogenic propellant tank recently completed testing inside the Hydrogen Cold Flow Test Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The tank was insulated, filled with liquid hydrogen, cooled to extremely low temperatures and tested under pressures up to 135 psi.
This insulated, almost 8-foot-diameter (2.4-meter) composite cryogenic propellant tank recently completed testing inside the Hydrogen Cold Flow Test Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Image Credit: 
NASA/MSFC/David Olive
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A robot places composite fibers on the tank’s inner wall structure. Engineers at Boeing Research & Technology formed the composite cryogenic tank using automated fiber placement at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. The tank recently completed pressure tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
A robot places composite fibers on the tank’s inner wall structure. Engineers at Boeing Research & Technology formed the composite cryogenic tank using automated fiber placement at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. The tank recently completed pressure tests at the Marshall Center.
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Boeing
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The 5.5-meter tank currently is being manufactured at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. It will be one of the largest composite propellant tanks ever made and is scheduled to be pressure-tested in 2014 at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The 5.5-meter tank currently is being manufactured at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. It will be one of the largest composite propellant tanks ever made and is scheduled to be pressure-tested in 2014 at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Image Credit: 
Boeing
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Lee Mohon