A team of engineers from both NASA and Boeing have come up with a unique propellant tank design and manufacturing process to build one of the largest composite rocket fuel tanks ever made.
The primary objective of the project is to refine the processes and technology in making these composite cryogenic propellant tanks suitable for future heavy lift vehicles and other in-space application. The 18-foot-diameter (5.5 metre) composite tank just completed final assembly at the Boeing Developmental Centre in Tukwila, Washington. Soon it will be transported to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where it will undergo a series of tests throughout the summer.
NASA experts learned from prior tank designs and testing and helped devise ways to combat imperfections such as microscopic leaks, found in previous composite tanks. The team leveraged Boeing’s experience producing composites for aircraft to use a unique fiber-placement technique and new materials that did not require expensive curing processes in autoclaves, procedures traditionally associated with composite production.
John Vickers, the program manager for the Composite Cryotank said;
Advances in composite materials and manufacturing offer some of the greatest potential for improvements in cost, schedule and overall performance for a wide range of NASA missions. We have improved composite manufacturing without adding risks or costs to any of NASA’s current projects. We want to advance this technology, so tanks are ready as NASA’s Space Launch System, the largest most powerful rocket ever built, evolves.
When the tank arrives at the Marshall Center, it will move to a clean room and be prepared for testing at a recently refurbished test stand. Here, the tank will come to life as it is filled with liquid hydrogen, cooled and pressurised. As it undergoes this endurance testing, NASA and Boeing engineers will monitor data to see how it performs compared to metal tanks and the smaller 8-foot-diameter (2.4-metre) tank tested at Marshall last summer. Engineers will monitor testing from a new centralised control room, which is shared by several test facilities and has updated video, data acquisition and communications systems.