Today more and more countries are entering the space industry. According to the Space Foundation, the global market for space exploration was a whopping $383.5 billion worldwide in 2017, with a 100% increase in the total number of spacecrafts deployed. It is expected to grow to $1.1 trillion by 2040.
As the space market opens up, so does the need for technology that assists with cost, sustainability, efficiency and safety- such as seals.
In fact, polymer seals have been used in a variety of functions for spacecrafts such as:
- Payload Systems
- Ground Support Equipment
- Main Fuel and Oxygen Valves
- And more!
In today’s blog post, we will explore the use of polymer seals in the space industry.
A Changing Landscape
Since the first expedition into space in 1961 by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, there has been a surge in emerging countries and private sectors entering the space race.
In 2002 Elon Musk founded SpaceX, a private company whose goal is to manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecrafts with the goal of enabling commercial trips into space. In 2010 it became the first private company to return a spacecraft from low Earth orbit in 2010 and the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station in 2012.
In India, the Indian Space Research Organization (or ISRO) has developed a massive and ambitious space program. In 2014 they launched their Mars orbiter, becoming the fourth space agency and the first in Asia to reach the red planet. In 2017, it launched 104 satellites in a single rocket, tripling Russia’s record.
With so many new players entering the scene, the space industry has never looked more exciting. This also requires an increase in demand for high quality parts, such as polymer seals.
Space is Cold and Engines are Hot
Polymer spring energized seals are commonly used in a variety of space applications because of their durability and ability to withstand extreme temperatures.
With temperatures in space reaching cryogenic (-238*F or -150*C) it is important that the seals used can withstand the extreme temperatures. The outer polymer lip of a spring energized seal for example allows the seal to be used in temperatures of -423*F (-253*C) to 302*F (150*C).
On top of having seals that can be used in the cold, dark vacuum of space, seals are also used in conjunction with things like thrusters, combustion chambers, and other parts of the shuttle where temperatures can reach a whopping 6,000*F (3,315*C).
Many seals face frequent exposure to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the latter of which must be below 20K (-423*F or -253*C) in order to reach a liquid state. This puts an incredible amount of strain on the seal. One way around this is to make seals out of high-quality polymers such as PTFE, Torlon and more.
Increase of Pressure
In outer space, the pressure is 1.322 x 10-11 Pa. For those keeping track at home, this is essentially zero. However, the act of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere causes such a huge fluctuation in pressure that there is a potential for metal and other hardware to open, which in tern could potentially impact the seal.
As such it is critical that seals used can hold up to the extreme fluctuation of pressure, and continue to run, to keep the shuttle and its crew safe.
Teflon, or PTFE, is a popular material used because of its ability to not only handle extreme temperatures, but extreme pressure fluctuations as well.
As of 2012 it is estimated that the average launch cost of a NASA space shuttle is around $576 million. That cost does not factor in the price to build the craft, which values at a whopping $3.5 billion. As such, it behooves space programs to find ways to not only be cost efficient, but to be sustainable as well.
Luckily, with seals, making them out of polymer materials solves both problems!
Because of it’s ability to be produced at high volumes, making seals out of polymers can greatly reduce overhead cost. And because the plastic can be melted down and reused, they are highly sustainable as well!
With more and more people interested in space exploration, it is becoming more and more critical to have high quality parts to perform critical functions.
Polymer seals are the best choice for companies looking to have a high quality, cost efficient, and sustainable part that will withstand the rigors of space travel.
For more information, or to learn how Advanced EMC Technologies can help your spaceship blast off, contact us today!