Advanced Engineering 2018

Gurit’s SE 70 Helps NASA Reach New Heights

11 June 2013

Gurit has contributed to a NASA research project, which looked at the development of polymeric material that is curable in the environment of space, and is therefore useable in space construction projects.

The full project report was released by NASA last month.

Future space exploration will require large, lightweight structures for habitats, greenhouses, space bases, space factories, and so on. These projects are likely to require the preparation, in terrestrial conditions, of a prepreg, which can then be shipped, uncured, in a container into orbit and used for structural applications in space construction projects.

Dr Alexey Kondyurin, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, Australia, led a team to investigate the effect of the stratospheric conditions on the polymerisation process in the polymer matrix of a composite material, with Gurit providing its SE 70 carbon-epoxy prepreg to the project.

Uncured samples of SE 70, along with one cured control sample, were stapled to a sleeve attached to an aluminium base, together making up the flight cassette. Once weather conditions were suitable, the cassette, weighing just 1kg, was fixed to the outside of the balloon’s cabin, a telemetry unit.

The balloon was launched from Alice Springs Seven Mile Airport in Australia on April 16th 2010. Over the next three days the balloon and its payload, including the uncured SE 70 prepreg, was exposed to the stratosphere, and reached a maximum altitude of 40km. Temperature variations between -76 and 32.5°C, and pressure up to 2.1 torr were recorded during the flight.

After three days, the payload was separated from the balloon, and over three hours it descended by parachute to land nearly 1000km from the launch site.

The samples of SE 70 prepreg from the flight cassette, as well as those from the ground-control cassette and the refrigerator-control cassette, were analysed, with particular attention paid to the curing reaction and the degree of crosslinking. The final test of the curing ability of the materials after exposure in the stratosphere was carried out using dynamic mechanical analysis of the samples, which had been cured over three days at 80°C. The results show there was no significant difference between the glass-transition temperatures (Tg) of the flight, ground-control and refrigerated samples.

This demonstrates that uncured samples of SE 70 prepreg can be delivered and stored in the stratosphere with no negative impact on its curing capability.

A subsequent project, which took place in November 2012, saw these same samples of Gurit’s SE 70 prepreg cured at an altitude of 26km during a stratospheric flight, resulting in it being the first prepreg in the world to be fully cured in the stratosphere. Analysis of the samples is ongoing and the full NASA report is yet to be published.

Both projects demonstrate that uncured prepreg can be prepared in terrestrial conditions and transported into space, for on-site curing. These results pave the way for further research into the exciting future of construction in space.

Photo provided by Gurit

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