There are plenty of use-case examples of composite materials in aircraft and cars, and now the space program is getting in the action. NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) at Langley Research Center has just completed a series of full-scale physical tests using the HyperSizer structural sizing and composite analysis software to accurately predict the performance of the Composite Crew Module (CCM) under simulated flight conditions.
HyperSizer, from Collier Research Corp., was used throughout the almost three-year development project to optimize the design, weight and manufacturability of the CCM. The CCM is an all-composite alternative for the flight crew module Orion, which is part of NASA’s Constellation program to return man to the moon and/or Mars. The CCM, constructed of honeycomb sandwich and solid laminate composites, will help NASA examine the materials tradeoffs between metals and composites in space structures. NASA officials say the success of the recent HyperSizer tests are a positive sign that lightweight composites can find a home in space vehicle development.
As an optimization tool, HyperSizer works in a feedback loop with finite element analysis (FEA) software to automatically point to solutions that will minimize weight and maximize manufacturability. In the case of the CCM, HyperSizer provided a view into what the physics were doing, while also serving as a primary communications tool for displaying analytical results during the various technical reviews on the project.
During the test phase, the NASA engineering team blanketed the CCM vehicle with 280 linear strain gages-fiber optic cables generating about 3,000 channels of data-along with 80 acoustic sensors that listened for fiber breaks in the composite lay-ups. The tests also monitored internal pressure, and the CCM had to withstand twice standard atmospheric pressure in order to comply with NASA safety regulations.
According to NASA officials, the structure successfully withstood load tests to simulate launch abort and parachute deployment. And while there will be additional testing into early 2010, the success of the internal pressure test means the development program for the CCM will remain on track.