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ESA’s Rocket Tank Made of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic Is a Real Game-Changer

Metal could soon be replaced by an innovative material, carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), for the manufacturing of rocket tanks. This development is the result of research led by MT Aerospace in Germany, within the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Future Launchers Preparatory Program.
Ariane 6 will be the most advanced European launch vehicle, and could integrate the Phoebus upper stage 6 photos
Ariane 6Ariane 6Rocket LauncherPhoebusTest of carbon-composite oxidizer tank
ESA is working with several companies around the world, to develop Ariane 6, the most advanced European launch vehicle. So far, it looks like Ariane 6 will integrate multiple innovative technologies.

One of them is a next-generation engine, called Prometheus, which will be significantly lighter than the current Vulcain 2, and also more powerful, with a 120-ton thrust. For the first time, up to 70% of the engine’s components will be made using 3D printing, and Prometheus will also integrate a digital system, to control its thrust range.

The other innovation, which has recently been confirmed through testing, is a tank made completely of CFRP, instead of metal. The challenge was to create a material that could match metal’s leak-tight character, and resist the extreme temperatures that are required for cryogenic propellants. According to the program’s project manager, Kate Underhill, a complex weave of carbon fiber and a special resin were used for making this new carbon composite.

First tests proved that this carbon composite is leak-proof and also compatible with liquid oxygen, without the need for a metal liner. Small-scale demonstrators are currently being built, followed by the development of a full-scale rocket upper stage demonstrator.

The project’s demonstrator is called Phoebus, and it will have hydrogen and oxygen tanks with an 11.4 feet (3.5 meters) diameter, besides other new technologies in avionics and propulsion. Both tanks, the structure between them and the external cylinder will be made of CFRP.

Why would a CFRP rocket tank be so beneficial? First of all, because of safety reasons. A high-performance pressure tank equals safe rocket launches. Plus, thanks to its much lower mass, compared to metal tanks (it’s 2-ton lighter), it would free up more space for increased payload.

The Phoebus project is led by MT Aerospace and ArianeGroup, with support from ESA.

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