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"These tests prove that it's possible to build a lightweight fuel tank that's not only a safe, reliable container for liquid hydrogen," said Drew Smith, NASA's cryotanks project leader, "but also a durable, reusable component that can also help us reduce the costs associated with acquiring and operating a reusable launch vehicle." Composite cryogenic fuel tanks also offer a 10 to 25 percent weight savings over conventional aluminum fuel tanks, he added, which could enable larger payloads in the future.
The composite tank used for the tests was a 6-foot-diameter, 15-foot-long tank produced by Northrop Grumman as part of NASA's Next Generation Launch Technology program. The tank was fabricated and cryo-structurally tested at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center.
"Each cycle in our test program consisted of filling the tank with liquid hydrogen, pressurizing to an internal pressure of 113 pounds per square inch, then subjecting it an axial load to simulate the stresses experienced by a rocket during launch," explained Tod Palm, Northrop Grumman's cryogenic tank project leader. "Nine months and 40 cycles of testing and monitoring the composite test tank for leaks has given us the confidence that this type of cryogenic fuel tank can be safely and repeatedly launched, recovered and reused for next-generation space missions." An axial load is applied along the vertical axis of the launch vehicle.
Much of the team's success in the test program, added Palm, can be attributed to key technical advances made by Northrop Grumman and NASA in designing and constructing the composite tank. The tank is approximately one quarter of the projected size (27.5 feet in diameter x 80 feet long) of a fuel tank envisioned for some reusable launch vehicle concepts.