On May 16, NASA successfully launched a 56-foot-tall Black Brant IX sounding rocket from its Wallops Island, Va. facility. The Black Brant IX rocket was launched as part of the SubTec-7 mission to test a number of capabilities for sounding rocket missions to improve payload recovery systems, according to NASA.

One of the key aspects of the mission was to test the viability of composite nanotechnology, with the hope that composites can reduce the mass and improve the performance of aerospace systems. Prior NASA computer modeling analysis has shown that composites using carbon nanotube reinforcements could lead to a 30 percent reduction in the total mass of a launch vehicle.

“No single technology would have that much of an impact to reduce the mass of a launch vehicle by that much,” explains Michael Meador, Program Element Manager for Lightweight Materials and Manufacturing at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m not trying to be cliché, but that is a game changer!”

The May 16 launch gave NASA a chance to compare the tensile properties of a nanotube-based Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel (COPV) against the properties of conventional carbon fiber epoxy composites. Meador says NASA used the COPV as part of a cold-gas thruster system, noting that this involves moving the rocket’s payload during its flight, as well as spinning up the payload to improve the rocket’s aerodynamics during its descent to Earth. “We are one experiment in that payload, but it’s a pioneering flight. This is first time that carbon nanotube-based composites have been flight-tested in a structural component,” he said.

NASA collaborated with Nanocomp in Merrimack, N.H., to make nanotube yarns and sheets, with the space agency developing specialized processing methods to fabricate COPVs.

“We were interested not just in developing high-strength composites from carbon nanotube yarns but also in demonstrating their performance by building an actual component and flight testing it,” Meador says. “The COPV flight test will go a long way in showing that these materials are ready for use in future NASA missions.”

The suborbital rocket flight of a COPV is a first step, explains Emilie Siochi, a research materials engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She says the COPV represents the first large item that NASA has built by turning nanotube yarns into composites.

“There’s potential for the structural properties of carbon nanotubes to be much stronger than carbon fiber composites, now the state of the art for structural material,” Siochi says. “So if it’s stronger, we’ll be able to build lighter structures needed for access to space.”