Bremen (pta025/21.06.2021/12:05) - Augsburg, June 21, 2021. MT Aerospace AG, a subsidiary of the space and technology group OHB SE, was awarded a contract by ArianeGroup GmbH as part of the Future Launcher's Preparatory Program of the European Space Agency (ESA) for the advanced technology development for a future black upper stage for the European launcher Ariane 6. The advantages of the smart material CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) are in demand for the commissioned development of the propellant tanks and structures
PHOEBUS, a large-scale demonstrator for the future black rocket upper stage
In the technology development PHOEBUS (Prototype Highly OptimizEd Black Upper Stage) for the future optimized upper stage*) called "ICARUS", full use is being made of CFRP: The use of the smart material carbon fiber should make it possible to largely dispense with metallic components of the upper stage tanks and structures. This saves mass, which has a positive effect on the cost of each rocket launch, and makes it possible to transport more so-called payload mass (e.g. satellites) into space: Each rocket equipped with a black (so called because of the dark material CFRP).
ICARUS upper stage will be able to carry an additional payload of up to two tons.
Over the next three years, an upper stage demonstrator will be developed and manufactured, which will have to prove its functionality in the final system test conducted by ArianeGroup GmbH. The prototype tanks for liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX) will be manufactured in near-real size, meaning they will be about 2.5 meters high, with a diameter of 3.5 meters. "Our cryogenic fuel tanks made of CFRP have to measure up to the properties and reliability of their metallic predecessors," explains Hans Steininger, CEO of MT Aerospace AG. "Thanks to the lightweight construction using CFRP material and the associated design possibilities, the required weight saving compared with today's metal version can probably even be exceeded."
Tank prototype proved itself during testing
MT Aerospace AG has already achieved a milestone in the development of this technology. A specially developed CFRP tank proved in test that it had what it takes to be a rocket component; even at freezing temperatures of -183°C when tested for oxygen compatibility. "The test results are very encouraging, as our tank was able to withstand the rigorous demands imposed by the aggressive propellant components. We look forward to further development work on the optimized rocket upper stage," adds Hans Steininger.
With propellant tanks always "Safety first"!
For the propulsion of the upper stage in space, the tanks are refueled with the extremely reactive propellant components before rocket launch. Therefore, extremely high safety requirements must be met in the development of hydrogen-tight and oxygen-compatible CFRP tanks for cryogenic applications. Oxygen in particular is highly reactive, and hydrogen is also extremely volatile. Making a carbon fiber tank tight in this extreme temperature range without an additional barrier layer is a major challenge, the engineers entrusted with the task at MT Aerospace AG explain. They are convinced of the potential of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and want to use it to replace heavy metallic material without compromising quality or safety. CFRP has long been standard in automotive engineering and in sports equipment such as bicycles and tennis rackets. In the future, this will also apply to rocket components.
Smarter Material CFK
MT Aerospace AG is one of the leading companies in lightweight construction from metals and composites and has been active in the aerospace industry for decades. Here, often every gram counts. It also depends on maximum precision and reliability, reproducibility and compliance with international standards. Over five decades, a valuable wealth of experience has been built up thanks to various development orders (from Ariane 1 to Ariane 6) and commissioned series production. The Augsburg-based company also has decades of experience in the production of CFRP aircraft tanks (fresh and waste water tanks). For almost ten years now, the materials specialists have been increasingly looking at CFRP for use in aerospace and, in particular, for rocket components. The company has already contributed this expertise to the successful development of a solid-material engine housing (booster).
CFRP also opens up new possibilities in the manufacturing process: For example, the use of CFRP allows an integrated design, which means there are fewer individual components than with a metallic counterpart, whose individual components cannot be manufactured in a production process but must be welded or assembled together afterwards. This has a further positive effect on product costs.
Development project within a development project
The transition from metallic to composite materials represents a paradigm shift in upper stage design and production. The necessary development tasks are manifold: the design must be developed and specified, as must the manufacturing processes and the component production facilities; the ideal material must be found; the equipment, e.g. for automated depositing of the carbon fiber and curing of the component, must be procured and adjusted; methods for finishing and for quality assurance, e.g., by means of non-destructive testing methods, must be devised, tested and validated. At MT Aerospace AG, more than 40 engineers from a wide range of disciplines are therefore involved in CFRP upper stage development.
*) Rocket upper stage: In the development of the future "Black Upper Stage", MT Aerospace AG was entrusted with the tanks for liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, including the associated structures. In conjunction with the components supplied by ArianeGroup, such as the multiple ignitable Vinci engine and the various fluidic, hydraulic and electronic monitoring and control systems, this system also integrated by ArianeGroup forms the travel platform for the satellites into space before they are separated from the upper stage and have to reach their destination under their own power.(end)
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