Reusing Space Shuttle External Tank

Votes: 2
Views: 4354

The main aim of this topic is to introduce the concept of reusing the external tank of a space shuttle. To achieve this we are proposing to use Thermal Protection System (TPS) in conjunction with a High Temperature Heat Shield (HTHS). One of the most important and the only non-reusable part of a space shuttle is its External Tank (ET). There is a need to recreate the ET for every new space mission. This is primarily because of the fact that the ET cannot withstand the high temperature during re-entry and hence it breaks up and disintegrates over a remote ocean. Making the ET reusable has definitive economic benefits. Here the authors are introducing the use of a TPS using a combination of aerogels and HTHS. The idea is to concentrate the weight on the nose end of ET, by strategically placing a retractable HTHS. Soon after the jettisoning of ET from main shuttle, the heat shield is extended thereby preserving the rest of the body, which is coated with aerogels. The external tank gets detached from the orbiter shortly after the main engine cutoff just before orbital velocity is reached. Upon re-entry it burns up and disintegrates over a remote ocean. Using an HTHS made from SPFI may prevent this. The authors suggest the use of this heat shield as shown in Fig. 1. The proposed design acts as a blunt body, by having a high angle of attack. Therefore a hot shockwave is created in front of the ET, which deflects most of the heat and prevents the ET surface from directly contacting the peak heat. Therefore re-entry heating is largely convective between the shockwave and the shield’s skin through superheated plasma. Additional aerogel coating may be employed to protect rest of the body, owing to its lightweight and low thermal conductivity. Silica aerogels has the capacity to withstand a temperature up to 1200 C and hence a good candidate for this purpose. Soon after the separation, we may orient the ET, in a similar fashion to the space shuttle re-entry. This can be achieved by proper guidance using the technology based on the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System). As we are having a near vertical fall with nose pointing down, we can have a conical retractable heat shield as shown in Fig. 2. An idea to re-use the external tank is presented. As the shuttle program gets to its final phase, and with the development of Ares launch vehicles, the same principle could be applied to this class of launch vehicles.


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  • Name:
    Vyshak Sureshkumar
  • Type of entry:
    Team members:
    Vyshak Sureshkumar, Sundeep Ramachandran, M V N Sankaram
  • Profession:
  • Vyshak is inspired by:
    To create a better future, hassle free life, safer environment and minimizing the economic factor.
  • Patent status: