It’s hard to believe that anything could have been done cheaply to save costs on the NASA space shuttle. Yet that appears to be exactly the case with the insulation problems that have been plaguing recent flights. On Friday, cracked insulation was found on all three of the fuel tanks scheduled for upcoming flights. And the cracks have probably been there a while.
Cracks are appearing in foam-covered cork insulation that is applied to aluminum alloy brackets. The brackets, which are 17 inches long and four inches wide when foamed, support the liquid oxygen feedline on the external fuel tank. The cork prevents ice from forming on the brackets. Super-cold fuel is inside the tank. Engineers are now finally developing a better solution—replacement of the aluminum alloy with titanium. For the next shuttle flight, the foam and high-density cork insulation will be removed and replaced with foam only. The titanium parts will be ready by spring.
Bad materials engineering has been one of the banes of the space shuttle program. And the problems have not exactly been rocket science. The most famous, or course, was the O-ring failure that led to the disintegration of the Challenger in 1986. It was well known that the fluoroelastomeric materials in the O-rings had extremely poor low-temperature capabilities. Once compressed, very cold O-rings take time to return to their normal shape. Temperatures were very cold the night before the Challenger launch, but temperatures at launch time were within allowable guidelines. Because of poor communications, the problems with the O-ring materials’ properties were not adequately known, and the launch proceeded. O-ring joints now have on-board heaters that are turned on when temperatures drop below 50F.
Alcoa has unveiled a new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet, aimed especially at automotive, industrial, and packaging applications. If all its claims are true, this is a major breakthrough, and may convince more automotive engineers to use aluminum.
NASA has just installed a giant robot to help in its research on composite aerospace materials, like those used for the Orion spacecraft. The agency wants to shave the time it takes to get composites through design, test, and manufacturing stages.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with architects Foster + Partners to test the possibility of using lunar regolith, or moon rocks, and 3D printing to make structures for use on the moon. A new video shows some cool animations of a hypothetical lunar mission that carries out this vision.
If there's one thing 3D printing's good for, it's customization. New Balance Athletic Shoe Company has begun using 3D printing to make customized spike plates for its running shoes made for members of its Team New Balance runners. They provide better traction and shave off a tiny bit of weight.
Two teams, one based in the US and one in Europe, have 3D printed space-worthy support structures for satellite antenna arrays. These aren't prototypes: they're fully functioning antenna supports that will operate while exposed to the harsh temperatures and radiation of outer space.
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