A Braze New World
Brazing plays an important role in safe, reliable and sustainable space exploration.
The saying goes, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This phrase, famously spoken by Neil Armstrong, is the perfect advertisement for space exploration and its importance to the future. Less than a century old, space exploration has progressed leaps and bounds since the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was propelled into space in 1957. Since then, the world has witnessed marvels such as landing on the moon, the space shuttle program of the 1970s, and the launch of the International Space Station (ISS). The importance of these missions and their subsequent value is immeasurable.
While many might not realize on a day-to-day basis, space exploration has improved lives and the global economy to no end. Its impact can be seen in simple weather forecasting, broadcasting TV and radio, predicting natural disasters, monitoring for fertile land, forecasting sea level patterns, and even aiding research on muscular atrophy. It’s little wonder that this industry has significant value. The space industry was reportedly worth $384 million in 2017, growing at a rate of 7.4%. According to Morgan Stanley, the industry is projected to be worth $1.1 trillion by 2040.1
However, there are challenges. Many people believe that the millions of dollars and resources used to explore space could be better used on immediate threats to society like clean water, famine, poverty, and more. Outside of external opinion, though, the industry faces internal operational challenges. Namely, space exploration needs to become safer and more sustainable.
A huge part of solving this challenge is in brazing. In simple terms, brazing joins two materials (e.g., two metals, a metal and a ceramic, or two ceramics) by heating and melting a filler that bonds to the two pieces and joins them. The filler must have a melting temperature below that of the two pieces.
Space, For All to Enjoy
Space travel is not just for highly trained astronauts and public benefit; the commercial aspect is growing. Satellite TV and radio have already been mentioned, but billionaire entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk have also been pioneering private space travel. The hope is that civilians might one day be able to enjoy outer space as well, albeit for potentially high prices. Achieving this dream is of course hinged on safety and reliability, given that lives will be at stake.
The key to improving these factors is being able to place sensors as closely as possible to the spacecraft’s engine. By enabling sensors to be placed near the spacecraft’s engine, mission control and crew can then accurately read and measure data and output. This includes fuel efficiency, temperature, gas flow, and monitoring for fire detection or abnormalities. If these sensors are placed too far away from the engines, data readings become inaccurate and missions can be compromised.
Recent news highlights why sensor technologies are critical, as a two-man space crew had to abort their flight to the ISS after a post-rocket launch failure.2 The Soyuz spacecraft started to experience failure 119 seconds into the flight, and problems were seemingly reported by the crew first, not by mission control. The crew described feelings of weightlessness, an indication of a problem during that stage of the flight. Luckily, the crew aborted, ejected their capsule from the rocket and returned safely to Earth.
While the cause of the failure is still to be identified at the time of writing, clearly such a situation should not be happening. Any problems should be picked up by mission control, and not be reliant on crew judgement. The challenge, though, is that some sensors are made from ceramic due to the need to resist corrosion and high temperatures, typically up to 950°C (1,742°F). However, these ceramic sensors then need to be joined to metallic parts of the engine.
This is where “active alloys” come in. The active component, usually titanium, allows these alloys to bond to oxides, carbides and nitride materials, in addition to metals. This makes active brazing unique in its ability to bond radically different material families, like metal to ceramic, ceramic to ceramic, or composite to ceramic.
Watch this Space
Space travel, as Richard Branson predicts for his own Virgin Galactic program, is only two or three flights away.3 We’re truly not far from entering a new world, and brazing will have its say on how the space industry turns out. Brazing solutions can already be found across the various programs and spacecraft. Through more research and development, who knows where this important industry could lead.
For more information, visit www.morganbrazealloys.com.
- Sheetz, Michael, “Morgan Stanley can’t get clients to care but it thinks investing in space will be a very big deal,” CNBC, August 23, 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/08/23/morgan-stanley-is-trying-to-get-clients-to-pay-attention-to-the-space-industry-despite-lack-of-interest.html.
- Bodner, Matthew, “Space crew abort flight after post-launch rocket failure,” The Guardian, October 11, 2018, www.theguardian.com/science/2018/oct/11/rocket-failure-forces-astronauts-to-make-emergency-landing-soyuz.
- Sheetz, Michael, “Richard Branson says Virgin Galactic is ‘2 or 3’ flights away from taking people to space,” CNBC, May 29, 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/05/29/richard-branson-virgin-galactic-is-2-or-3-flights-away-from-space.html.
- “Space Shuttle and International Space Station,” NASA, www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttle_faq.html#10.