Plastic composites replaced titanium in key components of the Orion space capsule, which both launched into and returned from space today.
TenCate Advanced Composites North America of Morgan Hill, Calif., developed the heat-resistant composites for the heat shield and backshell structure of the capsule made by aerospace firm Lockheed Martin.
“This week's flight represents the culmination of a five-year development and qualification effort for a suite of materials used in this extreme application,” states Steve Mead, vice president of marketing and sales for the company.
Lockheed Martin's thermal protection group worked with TenCate to develop a heat-resistant composite resin for the 16.5-foot diameter heat shield and the crew vehicle backshell, TenCate explained in a news release. The shield's large area and 1.6-inch thickness entailed high parts consolidation using only a low-pressure vacuum bag molding process.
During re-entry the heat shield loses about 20 percent of its thickness due to vaporization as the capsule speeds into the earth's atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour. Re-entry temperatures can exceed 2,000° C.
The Orion project is the early stage for development of spacecraft capable of carrying humans into interplanetary space. Space engineers hope the project eventually will lead to humans landing on the planet Mars. The prototype capsule launched the morning of Dec. 5 was unmanned. It splashed back into the Pacific Ocean just over four hours after launch after completing two Earth orbits.
TenCate did not disclose the ingredients of its high-tech composites on Orion but the company said a range of polymers are used in its aerospace composites, including epoxies, cyanate ester, bismaleimide and high-temperature polyimides.
TenCate Advanced Composites North America is a subsidiary of Koninlijke Ten Cate NV of Almelo, Netherlands. The parent company's common name is Royal Ten Cate.