Aerospace Composites And Alloys

Creating spacecraft for the aerospace industry requires a keen understanding of how natural forces affect materials during flight.

 

On the Earth’s surface, life is fairly orderly in terms of human understanding of the elements, but in space, temperature fluctuations, radiation and chemical interactions can all have a great effect on the resilience of materials used in the construction of spacecraft.

In addition to environmental factors in choosing spacecraft materials, factors like weight, mass, gravity and energy usage must also be considered. Much like conventional aircraft, spacefaring vehicles must maintain a weight balance in order to safely achieve lift and maintain flight.

While orbiting, the mass of a spacecraft can affect its ability to use thrust and maintain a navigational vector. Because weight and mass are often correlated in design, both factors must be included in material choice for spacecraft.

Why Use Composites In Aerospace Manufacturing?

To address the aforementioned challenges, composite materials are often used when constructing aerospace vehicles. Aerospace composites have a number of advantages over traditional aerospace alloys, but these advantages range in value depending on the type of craft and its mission.

A composite aircraft in space is often lighter due to materials being constructed from things like plastics and carbon fiber. These materials create aircraft composites that are both lightweight, incredibly durable and resistant to the effects of extreme temperatures.

Composite materials in aerospace design may also incorporate a monocoque singe-shell molding that further alleviates environmental stressors.

Credit: Alpha Henry

Originally, composite materials used back in the 1950s took advantage of fiberglass arranged in a matrix alongside resin. These designs were used for commercial airliners, but carbon fiber soon became the defacto composite.

In addition, carbon laminate has been used to create a sandwich-like design for aircraft parts like secondary wing and tail components. Aromatic polyamide fibers, also referred to as aramid fibers, have also been used in aerospace design due to these fibers containing strong heat-resistant properties as well as high tensile strength.

As touched on above, composite aerospace materials must also be able to handle extreme temperature fluctuations. In space, temperatures can dip below -450 degrees Fahrenheit. Upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures can soar above 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.

This means that aerospace materials must be able to displace heat and stand up to the cold while shielding the occupants or payload inside. Composite materials have proven to be effective at these tasks while remaining resilient against strong pressure forces involved in space travel and general aviation at high altitudes.

Significant Innovations In Aerospace Materials

Although composites have taken center stage over traditional single-element alloys, engineers in the aerospace and aviation industries have been working with new alloy materials that promise to deliver better performance.

Beryllium, a chemical element that is both lightweight and high-strength, has been used alongside materials like titanium and aluminum to create hybrid alloy materials.

Credit: AlexanderCraker

The Lightweight Alloys of Tomorrow initiative, a product of the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, is also advancing new technologies for producing and rendering alloys for use in aerospace designs.

This initiative is focused on working with both manufacturers in the aerospace industry and materials processors to create and utilize new alloys and hybrid materials for aviation and space flight.

Among the innovations that have come from the Lightweight Alloys of Tomorrow initiative are new ways of heat-treating alloys to improve their properties. Additionally, how alloys are cut can also have an effect on their performance.

Surface integrity is a main point of focus when cutting aerospace materials as small areas that display weakness can lead to big problems in space. Additionally, the wear that is placed on tools and equipment used for cutting can lead to increased costs and inconsistent cutting results.

One of the goals of the Lightweight Alloys of Tomorrow initiative is to improve cutting processes to reduce costs and improve consistent surface integrity.

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