NASA project looks to carbon nanotube composite materials

The Super-lightweight Aerospace Composites (SAC) project seeks to scale up the manufacturing and use of carbon nanotube composite materials for rockets and spacecraft.


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NASA (Washington, DC, US) is working to advance nanoscale material technology for creating lighter rockets and spacecraft. The Super-lightweight Aerospace Composites (SAC) project seeks to scale up the manufacturing and use of high-strength carbon nanotube composite material, which consist of carbon atoms chemically bound in the shape of cylinders. NASA’s Langley Research Center (Hampton, VA, US) is leading a team of researchers along with other NASA centers, government agencies, academia and industry partners to move the technology forward and explore how to build large structures from the material. 

“Ultra-lightweight materials is an exciting area of space technology,” says LaNetra Tate, program executive for NASA’s Game Changing Development program. “Carbon nanotubes have mechanical properties that promise high payoff for future exploration missions.”

NASA’s Game Changing Development program has funded a Phase III Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract with Nanocomp Technologies Inc. (Merrimack, NH, US). Nanocomp is working to scale up manufacturing capabilities and lower production costs of high-strength carbon nanotube yarn, building on previous SBIR awards from the Department of Defense and NASA.

“NASA’s goal is to begin using the larger quantities of material from Nanocomp to build structures within a few years,” says Mia Siochi, senior research materials engineer and lead for SAC. 

A 2017 flight test demonstrated that carbon nanotubes can be used for Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPVs) used as propellant tanks. San Diego Composites (San Diego, CA, US), under another NASA Phase III SBIR contract, will be building prototype carbon nanotube COPVs, expanding on work started under Phase I and II Missile Defense Agency SBIR awards.

NASA is also working through the Space Technology Research Institute (STRI, Washington, DC, US) for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design to accelerate carbon nanotube technology development. This institute works with universities, companies and the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct modeling and experimental studies of carbon nanotube materials on an atomistic molecular level, macro-scale and in between.