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High-Pressure Lightweight Thrusters

Carbon/carbon composite structures are braided over iridium-lined mandrels and densified by chemical vapor infiltration.

Returning samples of Martian soil and rock to Earth is of great interest to scientists. There were numerous studies to evaluate Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission architectures, technology needs, development plans, and requirements. The largest propulsion risk element of the MSR mission is the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Along with the baseline solid-propellant vehicle, liquid propellants have been considered. Similar requirements apply to other lander ascent engines and reaction control systems.

The performance of current state-of-the-art liquid propellant engines can be significantly improved by increasing both combustion temperature and pressure. Pump-fed propulsion is suggested for a single-stage bipropellant MAV. Achieving a 90- percent stage propellant fraction is thought to be possible on a 100-kg scale, including sufficient thrust for lifting off Mars.

To increase the performance of storable bipropellant rocket engines, a high-pressure, lightweight combustion chamber was designed. Iridium liner electrodeposition was investigated on complex-shaped thrust chamber mandrels. Dense, uniform iridium liners were produced on chamber and cylindrical mandrels. Carbon/carbon composite (C/C) structures were braided over iridium-lined mandrels and densified by chemical vapor infiltration. Niobium deposition was evaluated for forming a metallic attachment flange on the carbon/carbon structure. The new thrust chamber was designed to exceed state-of-the-art performance, and was manufactured with an 83-percent weight savings.

High-performance C/Cs possess a unique set of properties that make them desirable materials for high-temperature structures used in rocket propulsion components, hypersonic vehicles, and aircraft brakes. In particular, more attention is focused on 3D braided C/Cs due to their mesh-work structure. Research on the properties of C/Cs has shown that the strength of composites is strongly affected by the fiber-matrix interfacial bonding, and that weakening interface realizes pseudo-plastic behavior with significant increase in the tensile strength. The investigation of high-temperature strength of C/Cs under highrate heating (critical for thrust chambers) shows that tensile and compression strength increases from 70 MPa at room temperature to 110 MPa at 1,773 K, and up to 125 MPa at 2,473 K.

Despite these unique properties, the use of C/Cs is limited by its high oxidation rate at elevated temperatures. Lining carbon/ carbon chambers with a thin layer of iridium or iridium and rhenium is an innovative way to use proven refractory metals and provide the oxidation barrier necessary to enable the use of carbon/carbon composites. Due to the lower density of C/Cs as compared to SiC/SiC composites, an iridium liner can be added to the C/C structure and still be below the overall thruster weight. Weight calculations show that C/C, C/C with 50 microns of Ir, and C/C with 100 microns of Ir are of less weight than alternative materials for the same construction.

This work was done by Richard Holmes of Marshall Space Flight Center and Timothy McKechnie, Anatoliy Shchetkovskiy, and Alexander Smirnov of Plasma Processes, Inc. For more information, contact Sammy Nabors, MSFC Commercialization Assistance Lead, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. MFS-32883-1