NASA: Marshall tests membranes for future space structures

04 October 2000

Engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have completed tests on an experimental lightweight, inflatable structure that one day might lead to optical, solar power or propulsion uses in space. Engineers Bob Engberg, left, and John Lassiter examine the structure, supported by a test stand. A similar structure has potential applications as a communications antenna, a solar energy collector, a concentrator for a solar-powered rocket engine, or a telescope mirror. Compact, thin-walled membranes hold the promise of being used for very large structures in the weightlessness of space. They would weigh a fraction of traditional metal and composite structures and, when deflated, could be packed into a much smaller volume - making them much cheaper to launch. The gold, 21-foot (6.4-meter) inflatable ring and its silver, 16.4-foot (5-meter) inflatable reflector -- manufactured by SRS Technologies of Huntsville -- weigh less than 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms). The super-light plastic membrane is one-third as thick as a sheet of paper. The tests at the Marshall Center were aimed at developing reliable methods of testing ultra-light structures. The month-long series of vibration tests is being followed with more tests of the structure at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Marshall and Langley engineers are jointly funded by NASA's Cross Enterprise Technology Development Program to collaboratively advance this technology. This is the sixth inflatable structure tested by Marshall in an effort to test, model, analyze and develop applications for thin film structures.