Sunday, June 10, 2018

DARPA's Spaceplane: an X-33 version, Page 2.

Copyright 2018 Robert Clark

 The OldSpace companies had always discounted the viability of reusable launchers on the grounds that the launch market was not enough to pay for it. However, a new market will soon be opening up for hundreds to thousands of launches required for the impending satellite megaconstellations. Now even the OldSpace company ArianeSpace is speaking of transitioning to reusability.

 So with reusability soon to become prevalent we have now further justification for resurrecting the X-33. Boeing supported by a DARPA grant is developing a reusable, spaceplane first stage, the XS-1, then Lockheed with the X-33 would have a competing reusable launcher.

 In the blog post DARPA's Spaceplane:an X-33 version, I discussed that the X-33 used as a reusable first stage has importance beyond that of just a test stage of an operational SSTO, the VentureStar. For the X-33 could be its own operational vehicle, cutting costs in its own right as a reusable first stage.  But intriguingly the problems that originally doomed the X-33 and its SSTO follow-on the VentureStar may also be solvable.

 As discussed in that earlier post, it was the failure of the composite tanks that caused the X-33 program to be cancelled. But some new high strength aluminum alloys may have the comparable lightweight characteristics as carbon composite tanks.

 Carbon composite propellant tanks are a pretty well developed technology, as long as they are cylindrically shaped. But the unusual conformal shape of the composite tanks on the X-33 caused them to fail.

 Carbon composite saves about half-off the weight of standard aluminum tanks. But interestingly some new aluminum alloys have comparable high strength at lightweight as carbon composite and therefore could be used to give the lightweight tanks needed. 

 See for example the graphic:

  The 7075 T6 alloy has nearly twice the strength per weight as the standard 6061 T6 alloy, and the 7068 T6 was nearly 2.5 times better. 

 A consideration as described on that page is that 7075 is 2 to 3 times more expensive than the standard 6061 and the 7068 is 3 to 4 times more expensive. But considering that because of their higher strength, smaller amounts of the material by a factor of 2 to 2.5 would be needed the price difference in practice would not be as great.

 Note also since it was the inability to produce the composite tanks in the X-33 at the needed lightweight that caused the program to be cancelled, existence of the high strength aluminum alloys make the SSTO VentureStar once again viable.

 Development Cost.

 The cost of carbon fiber is about twice that of standard aluminum, so the cost of the tanks with high strength aluminum would not be much more than the cost of the carbon fiber X-33. Since Lockheed would be paying this itself, it might want first to do a smaller version of the X-33.

 In the earlier "DARPA's SpacePlane" post, I suggested a smaller version half-size in linear dimensions of the X-33 might cost ca. $45 million to build. This would test the technology and moreover using it as an upper stage of the X-33 would give a fully reusable system.

   Bob Clark

UPDATE 7/4/2018: 

 I've been informed of other other high strength, lightweight metal alloys that could also allow VentureStar to achieve its goal of a being a reusable SSTO, and allow the X-33 to be able to serve as a low cost reusable first stage.

 The alloys have various strengths and weaknesses. For example some are are just now being experimented with but their measured strength-to-weight ratio is more than 3 times better than standard aluminum. Some are steel alloys which have better weldability than the aluminum alloys, etc.

 For instance in the graphic above, the titanium 6Al-4V alloy is a little better than the 7075 and is already used in rockets for example for solid motor casings.

 There is also a high strength steel alloy, the 17-7 PH stainless steel CH 900:

Re: SpaceX second stage secret sauce?

 It has comparable strength-to-weight as the 7068, i.e., nearly 2.5 times better than standard aluminum. It also has better weldability than the aluminum alloys.

 A recent report shows some high strength aluminum alloys such as the 7075 can be 3D-printed:

Engineers Have Found a Way to 3D Print Super Strong Aluminum.
B. Ferguson/HRL Laboratories
by Dom Galeon September 22, 2017 Hard Science

 This is useful since the high strength aluminum alloys such as the 7075 have poor weldability. But the conformal shapes of the X-33/VentureStar tanks would be difficult to make without welding.

 Ti 5553 alloy is another ultra strong titanium alloy, even better than the Ti 6Al-4V. It has a max tensile strength in the range of 1,400 MPa. At a density of 4.64 gm/cc, this puts it in strength-to-weight ratio at even better than the 7068 alloy, and nearly 3 times better than standard aluminum:

Processing of a metastable titanium alloy (Ti-5553) by selective laser melting.
November 2016Ain Shams Engineering Journal 8(3)

Finally, a titanium alloy known as the Ti185 was long known but it was difficult to produce it so it had uniform strength throughout. A new method of producing it using titanium hydride powder can produce it so it is uniformly strong:

Low-cost and lightweight: Strongest titanium alloy aims at improving vehicle fuel economy and reducing CO2 emissions
April 1, 2016, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

 Approaching 1,700 MPa in tensile strength, it would be 3.5 times better on strength-to-weight than standard aluminum. Because it is made of titanium hydride powder, it may also be possible to make it by 3D-printing, which would solve the problem of producing a conformal shape for the tanks of the X-33/VentureStar.


  1. An interesting prospect for sure. An SSTO would have to be pretty darn amazing to compete with the possibility of fully reusable Falcon 9s or BFRs, but using proven technologies and materials can ease the burden.

    Would there be any concerns over the lower temperature resistance of aluminium alloys compared to carbon composites?

  2. You would of course still need thermal protection shielding for the underside. For the original X-33 and VentureStar it was high temperature metallic shingles. There are now some advances in lightweight high temperature ceramics that can probably do it at lighter weight than those.

    The purpose of the thermal protection shielding is not to let the high temperatures through to the underside, whether aluminum or carbon fiber.

    Bob Clark

  3. Hi, I'm an aluminum supplier from China, Shall we keep connection on aluminum alloy technology, you can also find the product i can supply on our website:
    PhoneNumber: +86-1-590-3641-529

  4. This is amazing thanks for sharing this blog I become fan of your blogs now. This blog is so interesting and informative.