Tanks for a Great Idea

March 18, 2014 in Space, Technology

Humankind’s fascination with space helped put a man on the moon and satellites into orbit. It’s the same wonderment that currently captures the imagination of Boeing engineers, who are designing and building innovative technologies to enable new explorations into the Final Frontier.

Working under contract with NASA’s Space Technology Game Changing Development Program, Boeing has designed and built two composite liquid-hydrogen fuel tanks for heavy-lift launch vehicles and other future air and space missions.

Final assembly just wrapped up on the larger (5.5-meter) tank at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. Next week, the tank will be loaded onto the NASA Super Guppy, a large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft, and transported to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for testing. This forthcoming test follows Boeing and NASA successfully testing a 2.4-meter composite tank at Marshall last year. These tanks promise a 30 percent weight reduction and 25 percent cost savings over the state of the art metallic tanks used today.

Dan Rivera, the cryotank program manager within Boeing Research & Technology, the company's advanced R&D organization, said Boeing and NASA’s work has truly game-changing potential for the future of space exploration. The teams’ innovation provides both weight and cost savings, a combination that's hard to find, Rivera said.

“We used new composite materials and an integral design capable of withstanding launch vehicle loads,” Rivera said. “Boeing and NASA have assembled some of the world’s experts for this project. The approaches and technology they used in the design and fabrication of these tanks is revolutionary and is a major step toward providing greater capability to future space exploration.”

Aside from designing a lighter tank that can withstand extreme pressurization and the stress rockets endure during flight, engineers also had to figure out the best way to store cryogenic (super cold) liquid hydrogen, which is one of the most efficient rocket fuels. The hydrogen molecule can penetrate through traditional composites when temperatures get cold and the composite is loaded.

To combat microscopic leaks, Boeing engineers designed the cryotanks with automated fiber placement methods to lay thinner plies.

By building two different-sized cryotanks, Boeing and NASA can test and validate the structures and technologies. Successful tests could potentially lead to the use of these types of composite cryotanks on heavy-lift vehicles, in-space propellant depots and other Earth-departure exploration architectures.

“It has been very rewarding to see Boeing and NASA work in partnership to addresses the research and technology development needs that advance NASA and national interests,” said John Vickers, NASA program manager.

According to NASA, a potential initial target application for the composite technology is an upgrade to the upper stage of NASA's Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket meant for deep space travel.

“The composite tank project is giving us a great deal of experience and improved confidence and therefore is changing the way we look at composites for spacecraft applications,” Vickers said.