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Carbon Fiber Reinforced Thermoplastic Composites for Repurposable Aerospace Applications


Scope Title:

Carbon Fiber Reinforced Thermoplastic Composites for Repurposable Aerospace Applications

Scope Description:

This solicitation seeks to exploit unique properties of thermoplastic composites to assess their feasibility and propose concepts of operations for in situ repurposing of primary and secondary spacecraft structures into deep space exploration infrastructure supporting sustainable human presence beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). For the purpose of this solicitation, the term "infrastructure" encompasses tools that can be used for excavation, construction, and outfitting [1]. The original spacecraft (e.g., lander or descent module) components would be designed with future repurposing requirements accounted for in the initial design objectives. Once the spacecraft would accomplish its mission (e.g., successfully descended onto the lunar surface), its parts would be disassembled and reconfigured into infrastructure components and/or tools by reheating thermoplastic resin [2], first consolidated during original manufacturing prior to launch, and mechanically modifying the structure into a predetermined repurposed configuration.


NASA is developing long-duration, crewed missions to the Moon and beyond. These missions will require crew habitats and, consequently, sourcing materials to construct them and the associated infrastructure, such as storage, surface transportation, and means of communications. Use of in situ resources (e.g., lunar regolith) and reuse of descent vehicles have already been proposed as a means of reducing the amount of material needing to be delivered as payload for sustainable human presence. The ability to repurpose components of spacecraft structures, via additive manufacturing or other methods, is one potential benefit of using carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites [3, 4]. Thermoplastics also offer the potential to be easily repaired via a reheating process in the event of in-service damage [5].


To reliably assess the feasibility of repurposing thermoplastic composites for space applications, both modeling and simulation (M&S), as well as experimental work, needs to be conducted in a building block approach. In Phase I, the proposing team shall select a focus structure where the original geometric configuration and a repurposed configuration are defined along with the corresponding sizing load cases. Repurposing lunar lander fairings and/or components of the micrometeoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) protective structure into a regolith mining scoop, or repurposing primary truss structure into an antenna post are examples provided here for illustration purposes only, and the proposing team is encouraged to survey and offer other applications of their choosing. A selected study case shall exemplify repurposing both from the standpoint of altered geometry and distinct loads and environment. Once the two “stand-alone” cases (original and repurposed) are sized and analyzed, a multiphysics simulation of the repurposing process shall be conducted. Exploring repurposing process sensitivity to different process parameters shall be leveraged to arrive to the final repurposing concept of operations and establish the energy required for the repurposing process. Heating methods shall be explored and include external and internal (pre-embedded) heating devices. Furthermore, the simulation shall establish tradeoffs associated with conducting the repurposing process with and without dedicated tooling aids. Success metrics should include a maximum weight penalty of 15% after repair, while still maintaining 100% load-carrying capability.


These efforts will establish a foundation for hardware demonstrations to be conducted in Phase II. Test data obtained from these demonstrations will be used to calibrate the multiphysics repurposing simulation framework to enable detailed repurposing assessment and mitigate prominent risks.

Expected TRL or TRL Range at completion of the Project: 2 to 4

Primary Technology Taxonomy:

  • Level 1 12 Materials, Structures, Mechanical Systems, and Manufacturing
  • Level 2 12.2 Structures

Desired Deliverables of Phase I and Phase II:

  • Research
  • Analysis
  • Prototype

Desired Deliverables Description:

The Phase I deliverables shall include: (1) design with a dual purpose/requirements, i.e., the original spacecraft component (e.g., primary truss structure, landing gear strut, fairing, etc.) and the repurposed component (e.g., antenna mast, habitat frame, excavation scoop, etc.); (2) a concept of operation for the repurposing process supported by the multiphysics process simulation (energy requirement and source(s), means of delivering required heat, tooling, and any means of process quality assessment, and/or repurposed product nondestructive evaluation shall be included in the description of the proposed concept); and (3) metric(s) by which the required repurposing hardware weight and other feasibility aspects of the repurposing process can be assessed to inform mission design.


The Phase II deliverables shall include: (1) manufacturing demonstration unit per the design and repurposing process provided in Phase I deliverable; (2) report documenting original fabrication and repurposing process, including correlation with the results of the repurposing process modeling conducted in Phase I, (3) results of nondestructive evaluations before and after repurposing, and (4) revised or validated metric(s) of performance proposed in Phase I. Lessons learned section shall also be a part of the Phase II deliverable report.

State of the Art and Critical Gaps:

State of the Art and Critical Gaps:

Present composite designs mainly use thermoset materials, which have limited manufacturing rates, are difficult to repair, and can lack the desired tailorability for advanced structures. There is a need for advanced materials that can be used to increase performance and decrease manufacturing and repair demands for in-space applications.

Relevance / Science Traceability:

At the completion of Phase II, the program will gain understanding of where the implementation of repurposed carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites can be most advantageous in deep space structural applications, how such a repurposing can be accomplished (concept of operations), and what are the metrics that can be used in assessing feasibility of repurposing. Additionally, the technology gaps limiting even broader implementation of repurposed thermoplastic composites can be identified. This solicitation supports the Langley Strategic Technology Investment Plan [1] in the areas of “Safe Human Travel Beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO)” and “On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM).”


Thermoplastic composites offer the potential for lightweight composite structures to be repurposed, in contrast to state-of-the-art composites, which are generally made with thermoset resins. This supports applications like the Artemis mission, where in situ resources, among which are structures from objects like descent modules, become part of native resources that can be used to create infrastructure.


Examples of potential uses include: Space Technology Mission Directorate, Artemis/Human Landing System (HLS) programs, Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, next-generation airframe technology beyond "tube and wing" configurations (e.g., hybrid/blended wing body or transonic truss-braced wing), and the Hi-rate Composite Aircraft Manufacturing (HiCAM) program.


[1] Hilburger, Mark “Help Us Shape NASA’s Future Technology Investments: Lunar Excavation, Construction, and Outfitting,” YouTube, uploaded by NASA Space Tech, May 26, 2022.

[2] Van Ingen, J.W., Buitenhuis, A., Van Wijnaarden, M., and Simmons III., F.: “Development of the Gulfstream G650 Induction Welded Thermoplastic Elevators and Rudder.” SAMPE Conference, Seattle, WA, May 2010.

[3] Nishida, H., Carvelli, V., Fujii, T., and Okubo, K. “Thermoplastic vs. Thermoset Epoxy Carbon Textile Composites.” 2018 IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering. Vol. 406, Paper 012043.

[4] Gramann, P., Rios, A., and Davis, B. “Failure of Thermoset Versus Thermoplastic Materials”. Materials Science, ID 106398935, 2005.

[5] Barroeta Robles, J., Dubé, M., Hubert, P., and Yousefpour, A. “Repair of Thermoplastic Composites: An Overview.” Advanced Manufacturing: Polymer & Composites Science, Vol. 8, Issue 2, 2022.

[6] Langley Technology Council “Langley Strategic Technology Investment Plan.” LSTIP V9, April 2022.

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