Composite materials have a long, storied history in space and aerospace applications. In fact, the history of composites in space goes back to the early Apollo missions, with the Apollo shuttle’s capsule consisting of a form of epoxy novolac resin called Avcoat, which was made with silica fibers with a fiberglass honeycomb design. Since those early days, composite materials have had a place in many space applications, including spacecraft and satellites.
Composite materials combine two or more materials to form a new material that features enhanced properties for use in many applications. These materials offer numerous benefits that make them ideal for use in rockets, spacecraft, and satellites, including their lightweight nature, strength, resistance to corrosion, and thermal stability, among others.
Here we’ll explore what composite materials do for applications involving the construction of many pieces of equipment used in space.
Composite materials provide a number of unique benefits that make them suitable for many rockets and spacecraft, such as:
One of the main advantages of composite materials in space is their lower weight compared to other materials. For example, many space structures today comprise polymer composites reinforced with carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium, with carbon nanotubes being around eight times lighter than steel while providing 100 times its strength.
Many projects have and will benefit from lightweight composite materials, including the Artemis used in moon missions and the Space Launch System (SLS), which will allow for exploration extending beyond Earth’s orbit. The lighter weight also translates to more payload, seeing as lighter rockets require less fuel to power them and, subsequently, less space for fuel.
Another benefit of using composite materials in rockets and spacecraft is more payload. This benefit results from the lighter weight of the equipment used, with one pound of weight reduction in the vehicle’s total weight translating into one added pound of payload.
For example, while the SLS configuration used at the beginning of its program will not consist of many composite components, it’s possible that future solutions may use these materials to reduce its weight and cost, maximizing the vehicle’s payload in the process.
Strength is also crucial when building spacecraft and rockets, as materials need to hold up in harsh environments and extreme temperatures. As mentioned, carbon fiber used in many rockets and spacecraft in the past through to today offers 100 times the strength of steel. These and other composite materials lend ample strength to many pieces of equipment used in space and aerospace applications.
The Space Shuttle has also used carbon-carbon panels on its wings and nose that protect the vehicle from burn up on reentry, with the ability to resist temperatures over 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Corrosion resistance is another favorable feature that many space applications benefit from when using composite materials. Spacecraft and rockets need materials that can hold up in extreme weather and temperatures, but conventional materials like steel are vulnerable to corrosion unless coated with zinc or other supplemental materials. Meanwhile, composite materials like carbon fiber are naturally corrosion-resistant and can prevent potential damage from harsh environments.
In addition to rockets and spacecraft, satellites benefit from the use of various composite materials. The advantages of these materials in satellite construction include the following:
Composite materials allow for the construction of lighter, low-cost satellites. As a result, it’s possible for satellites to orbit more efficiently and for space programs to launch multiple satellites simultaneously. Many of the more low-cost satellite systems made with composites help carry some of the workloads from larger and more costly satellites, further allowing for more efficient operations.
Thermal stability is a key element of satellites and other space applications. Materials must be able to avoid burnup on reentry and hold up in the vacuum of space, which composite materials facilitate.
Many spacecraft have used various composites to provide sufficient thermal stability. For instance, the thermal protection system (TPS) in human-rated crew capsules uses composite panels for support. These materials not only help protect spacecraft and crews during reentry, but they also help reduce the mass of the vehicle by reducing the amount of material needed for construction. Additionally, many satellites and other space structures use carbon fiber laminates that provide reliable thermal conductivity. These carbon fiber laminate materials allow for consistent stability in the face of the vacuum of space and extreme temperatures.
When satellites and other spacecraft consist of high modulus composite materials, they benefit from added stiffness that translates to higher precision. Satellites today often use composite materials with high modulus. An example of this is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which uses ultra-high modulus carbon fiber along with cyanate ester resin in its Deployable Tower Assembly (DTA), which is a secondary support structure consisting of a mirror and framework for containing cooling systems and scientific equipment.
Composite materials like the ones used in the JWST are ideal for optical bench applications, seeing as the increased modulus or stiffness provides a highly stable structure, allowing satellites to hold up in low-temperature environments like the ones the JWST will see.
Composite materials of all kinds provide numerous advantages for rockets, spacecraft, satellites, and other space-oriented equipment. The lighter weight, optimal strength, high modulus, thermal stability, and cost-reduction capabilities of composites will continue to make these materials ideal for use in future applications. Engineers continue to develop better materials and designs that use them to increase payloads and minimize the costs of various space missions.
Ultimately, the future of composite materials in space and aerospace applications looks very bright. The use of reliable carbon fibers and other resinous composites allows for certain capabilities that will carry our space programs into the distant future.
At Aerodine Composites, we provide you with the best composite components and assemblies for your applications. We leverage our extensive experience and expertise in composite material science, processes, and technology combined with a deep understanding of our customers’ needs to provide quality products at great value.
If you are looking for a dependable manufacturer and supplier of composite equipment and components, contact Aerodine Composites today and gain access to customized solutions in the design, manufacture, and application of high-performance composite structures.