Pressure Vessels in the Present and Future Space Economy

Pressure vessels are all around us and serve as critical components in today’s society. They have many applications underwater, on the ground, in the air, and beyond. In space applications, they’re primarily used for propulsion as storage containers for propellant or pressurant, whether for launch or in-space mobility.

Present Pressure Vessel Space Economy - Launch Vehicles

Today’s chemical-based launch vehicles typically utilize three primary pressure vessels: fuel, oxidizer, and pressurization fluid.

  • Primary propellant tank (often contains RP-1 aka rocket fuel, Methane, and Hydrogen)
  • Oxidizer tank (contains Oxygen, Nitrous Oxide)
  • Pressurant tank (contains Nitrogen, Helium)

Oftentimes the propellant and oxidizer tanks store fluids at cryogenic temperatures between -160ºC to -260ºC, while the pressurant tanks are stored at higher pressures 3,000-6,000 pounds per square inch (PSI). The pressurant tanks push the propellant and oxidizer fluids through the system to the engine to maintain consistent pressure. Ideally, all these tanks are as lightweight as possible to achieve maximum vehicle efficiency. The best way to achieve this is to remove as many or all the metal components as possible. This is why Infinite Composites created the infinite composite pressure vessel, a linerless, composite tank that relies entirely on lightweight carbon fiber composite materials to store both cryogenic and high-pressure fluids.

Present Pressure Vessel Space Economy - Spacecraft and Satellites

These same pressure vessels are also used for in-space vehicles including spacecraft and satellites. For low Earth Orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites, many of the newest satellites manufacturers are utilizing electric propulsion, which relies on dense fluids such as Krypton and Xenon to propel mass in space to create thrust.

For in-space mobility, many space “tugs” and lunar landers rely on similar tank requirements as launch vehicles, except that the propellant fluids are typically hypergolic fuels (rocket propellants that spontaneously ignite when mixed), which also utilize a high-pressure pressurant system.

Future Space Economy - Habitats and Life Support

As we continue to expand our presence in space and our time in space, pressure vessels will continue to be critical for survival, both for life support, mobility, and general operations. Oxygen or compressed air tanks will be as critical for breathing in space as they are for breathing underwater. These life support tanks will supply breathing capabilities in vehicles, habitats, and spacesuits for planetary exploration and everyday living.

This article was previously shared on Spaced Ventures.