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Materials & Assembly
Composites Boost Vega Satellite Launcher
3/22/2012

On Feb. 13, the first Vega satellite launcher, incorporating carbon-fiber composites, began its maiden flight from the Guiana Space Centre. (Source: S. Corvaja/European Space Agency)
On Feb. 13, the first Vega satellite launcher, incorporating carbon-fiber composites,
began its maiden flight from the Guiana Space Centre.
(Source: S. Corvaja/European Space Agency)

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Ann R. Thryft
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Re: airborn pollutants
Ann R. Thryft   3/26/2012 3:16:53 PM
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Thanks, Dave, for all that info on potential dangers of composites, as well as the info about the lack of dangers in some cases. I agree, the unintended consequences of a new technology must be carefully considered before its implementation.


3drob
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Re: airborn pollutants
3drob   3/23/2012 3:53:17 PM
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Dave,

Thanks for the reply.  I especially appreciate the links. 

It's not in my field, but I like to learn about other disciplines (you never know when it will come in handy).

-Rob

Dave Palmer
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Re: airborn pollutants
Dave Palmer   3/23/2012 3:39:16 PM
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@3drob: You're right about carbon fibers causing a skin rash.  It's not particularly serious from a medical perspective, but apparently it can cause a world of discomfort.

You're also absolutely right that it's important to consider all kinds of possibilities when evaluating a new technology.

Believe it or not, NASA actually did a study regarding the possibility of damage to electrical and electronic equipment resulting from the crashing of commercial airliners with carbon-fiber reinforced parts.  Carbon fibers are electrically conductive, so presumably if they are released in the atmosphere after a crash, they could get into ground-based electronics and cause shorts.  NASA did a fairly detailed analysis and concluded that this was very unlikely.

A lot of work has also been done on how carbon-fiber reinforced composites break up during atmospheric re-entry.  This is actually something that's fairly well understood, since one use for carbon-fiber reinforced composites is as ablative barriers (where the break-up of the composite protects a capsule on re-entry).

3drob
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Re: airborn pollutants
3drob   3/23/2012 2:58:50 PM
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Dave Palmer answered my question about inhalation dangers.   I've heard from people that work with it that while fiberglass fibers work their way out of your skin, carbon fibers tend to work back into the skin (so the disintigration in atmosphere could be a source of polution).

My other question was centered on the idea that objects constructed of carbon fiber are fundamentally more durable than those constructed of standard materials.  The assumption with a booster is that it will disintigrate on use (unlike prior applications like planes, well, at least hopefully planes).  If so, they may not disintigrate as assumed and could become a hazard to earth bound objects (myself included).  Even if they disintigrate, they may not become small enough pieces to be harmless.  How durable are carbon fiber materials?

It wouldn't be the first time some game changing technology was introduced by Engineers who didn't re-examine long held prior assumptions.

Dave Palmer
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Re: airborn pollutants
Dave Palmer   3/23/2012 12:49:59 PM
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@3drob: Inhalation of carbon fibers is not really all that dangerous, at least as far as inhalation of foreign substances goes. (When it comes to carbon nanotubes, it may be a different story).  At any rate, the airborne concentration of carbon fibers produced by re-entry of a launch vehicle is likely to be extremely small -- the earth's atmosphere is really big, and fibers are likely to be widely dispersed by the time they reach ground level.  Inhalation hazards are more of a concern for people working in composites manufacturing, where it is important to have adequate personal protective equipment.

TJ McDermott
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Re: The whole thing?
TJ McDermott   3/23/2012 12:43:00 PM
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I think Thiokol's Castor solid rocket booster is a composite wound structure, but that's smaller than the Vega booster (I think).

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: airborn pollutants
Ann R. Thryft   3/23/2012 12:40:47 PM
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3drob, if by airborne you mean more or less in flight, then no--CFR composites have been used in aircraft for several decades, including military aircraft:

http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=235863

and have been well tested for use in commercial planes:

http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=235214

If you mean burning up or falling back to earth, I don't see why these would be more dangerous than metals offhand. What specifically did you mean?


Ann R. Thryft
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Re: The whole thing?
Ann R. Thryft   3/23/2012 12:40:00 PM
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Chuck, composites have been used in launchers before, but not for the entire shell. The reasons for their use are basically the same ones as in other aerospace apps: light weight and toughness. CFR composites just keep getting stronger. Here's some info from Hexcel:

http://www.hexcel.com/solutions/aerospace/aspace-and-launchers

http://www.hexcel.com/Solutions/Aerospace/ALaunchers


Ann R. Thryft
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Re: The whole thing?
Ann R. Thryft   3/23/2012 12:38:57 PM
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TJ, those are interesting questions. I didn't find a lot of technical detail about the design. However, there's some info at this link (even though it's called a press kit):

http://download.esa.int/docs/VEGA/Vega_PressKit_06-02-2012_EN.pdf


3drob
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airborn pollutants
3drob   3/23/2012 9:47:46 AM
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Do these materials pose a risk once made airborn?  Carbon fibers are certainly more dangerous than other materials (biologically) so if they atomize they may cause issues. 

But even as a bulk material, will carbon fibers simply burn up or remain as a large object falling to earth and pose a blunt object risk?

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