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Ceramic matrix composites shield for atmospheric reentry system

News International-French

18 Mar 2014

Herakles (Safran) delivered the first thermal protection components for the IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) space vehicle in March 2014. The IXV is an experimental space vehicle intended to validate atmospheric reentry technologies to be used as part of the European Space Agency’s reusable launcher.

Light, shock resistant and able to withstand temperatures of well over 1,000°C, thermostructural composite materials are fast becoming the next big thing in the aerospace industry. 

The parts will make up the craft’s nose, lower surface and leading edges and act as a shield as it reenters the earth’s atmosphere. During this twenty-minute phase, they will have to resist temperatures of up to almost 1,600°C! All of the components are built using ceramic matrix composites (CMC), a variant of thermostructural composites combining carbon fibers and a silicon carbide matrix. For Herakles, November’s flight will provide a unique opportunity to test just how resistant its parts are in a full-scale exercise.

As Marc Montaudon, Aeronautics and Composites Business Unit Director at Herakles, explains, "The first thermostructural composites we developed almost 40 years ago were made from a carbon matrix reinforced by carbon fibers. They replaced the extremely heavy metallic alloys previously used in the hottest zones of missile engines. Then we extended their use to other fields, like in telescope tubes for observation satellites and the nozzle for the American Delta IV space launchers. Carbon-carbon composites are now mainly found in aircraft brakes. Messier-Bugatti-Dowty has become the world number 1 in the field, in no small part because of the technology we developed at Herakles."

From carbon-carbon to CMC

Herakles introduced CMCs to mass production on an aircraft with the Rafale’s nozzle flaps. Then, they capitalized on their know-how by diversifying their range. The company produced the hot gas valves used to steer the American SM-3 anti-ballistic missile and currently work with Snecma on the extendible nozzle for its Vinci engine, which will power the future Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 launchers. The extended nozzle accelerates the gases to a supersonic speed of up to 4,000 m/s.

The main challenge of the company in the years is to extend the benefits of CMCs to aircraft engines. 

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