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Composite Fuel Tanks Closer To Launch Pad

  • Tuesday, 22nd July 2003
  • Reading time: about 2 minutes

Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems sector will continue developing and refining manufacturing processes required to construct large cryogenic fuel tanks under a new Next Generation Launch Technology (NGLT) contract option from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The work is part of NASA’s ongoing effort to develop and mature technologies required for a next generation reusable launch vehicle. NGLT is part of the agency’s Space Launch Initiative (SLI), which also includes the Orbital Space Plane.

During the current 12-month, $5.3 million option period, Northrop Grumman will construct one half of a 10.5-foot diameter, reusable fuel tank from composite materials.

The manufacturing process will use a new, cost-saving technique that eliminates the need for an autoclave. An autoclave is a pressurized oven used to shape, heat and cure composite structures. Generally, the larger the structure, the larger and more costly the autoclave required. Current launch vehicles use single-use aluminum tanks for storing cryogenic fuels.

“”This project will demonstrate critical new cost- and time-saving techniques for producing large, reliable cryogenic fuel tanks from composite materials,”” said Tod Palm, Integrated Systems’ composite tank project leader. “”It’s another example of Northrop Grumman’s leadership in helping NASA achieve affordable, reusable access to space.””

According to Palm, the new process will produce fuel tanks that are 20 to 30 percent lighter than comparably sized aluminum tanks. For a given payload, this weight savings would produce an estimated eight percent decrease in vehicle acquisition costs and a six percent decrease in vehicle operations costs.

Under the new contract option, Northrop Grumman will also develop new defect detection technologies for inspecting large composite structures, perform life cycle testing on a smaller 6-foot x 15-foot composite tank fabricated under a previous SLI contract option, and conduct design and engineering development of conformal fuel tanks appropriate for use on a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle.

Northrop Grumman’s current NGLT work is an extension of work the company performed under two previous SLI contract options between June 2001 and May 2003.

That work focused on identifying appropriate materials for the new tanks, developing detailed subscale designs of the tanks and fabricating a subscale version of the tank. The current option is primarily devoted to scaling up those manufacturing processes to larger structures

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