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Composites in Space Missions

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

In this article possible uses of composite materials in Space is covered and reviewed. Like in every other industry composite materials have made revolutionary changes in aerospace industry. Composites ability to overcome extreme environment conditions and customizable manufacturing methods are main factors of the comparative advantages. Ceramic Matrix, Polymer Matrix, Metal Matrix and Fiber Metal Laminates (FMLs) are widely used in space vehicles due to their weight, thermal, stability and strength futures. Details about the specific composites are determined in this article for space vehicles.

Human species are trying to explore space for thousands of years in the last century we increased our capabilities to physically send vehicles to space and make better observations. Space programs are started by many countries and they generated many research possibility for scientists to explore new techniques to use materials more efficiently. For the space programs there are three main divisions which are Launch Vehicle, Satellite and Space Centre. Launch Vehicles are used as transportation vehicles for now between earth and space. They are carrying astronauts and payloads to the determined place from Space Centre. Space Centre can be described as a port for space vehicles to launch or land. Satellites are mainly used for data gatherings.

Composite materials are started to be used in the last decades and their popularity is increasing every year. Before all of this aluminium and alloys made out of it were widely used. Aerospace industry was highly relying on metals. Aluminium and alloys are still used in the industry but increasing scientific innovations indicated that composites are more efficient for many components used in space programs. Composite materials started dominating the space. Also custom composite manufacturing increased its importance.

Drawing 1: FML Aluminium Prepreg
Drawing 1: FML Aluminium Prepreg

What is the importance of Fiber Metal Laminates in Space Programs?

FMLs are developed for decrease fatigue in aluminium alloys at the Delft University in 1970s and commonly used for providing a great combination of metal and composites. In the development process it is found out that combining two structures composites and metals are generating never seen results. It is possible to eliminate weaknesses of metals and composites while combining their strengths. Metals have high impact resistance and bearing strength which is combined with composites great fatigue characteristics, stiffness, high strength and also corrosion resistance. FMLs can be defined as multiple layers of composites and metals. There are several different applications which are aiming different end results. ARALL (Aramid Reinforced Aluminium Laminate) is using aramid layers to have better fatigue behaviour and strength to weight ratio including higher damage tolerance. Since there are some disadvantages of aramid fibers, GLARE (GLAss Reinforced) is a better option for space applications. Forces applied to materials are determining the design characteristics of the materials and GLARE gives better results under biaxial stresses. It has more potential for increasing capability compare to ARALL.

What is the importance of honeycomb structures in Space Programs?

As we all know satellites and space vehicles are equipped with many different components to provide required duties. Every year industry is trying to provide more efficient satellites and space vehicles to increase outcomes with less energy and resources. Using composite materials increased our efficiency and let us achieve the results which were not possible decades ago.

Satellites have components which require strength and high modulus and non-directional stress absorbing materials. Housing, panels, straps and booms are mainly require high stiffness specific strength points, low thermal expansion rates and dimensional stability. Custom Carbon Fiber based composite materials used to satisfy these requirements. Especially honeycomb structures play a great role for providing high efficient components. Glass and Kevlar is used in electronic part components due to their conductivity and low transmission losses. Honeycomb composite parts are providing the same mechanical properties in 66% of the metal counterparts weights.

As known carbon and aluminium can start corrosive reaction and not easy to manufacture like glass and aluminium type FMLs. This is why carbon fiber combined aluminium honeycomb structures require good surface treatment to avoid any corrosion. According to many different scientific researches [3-9] FMLs increases damage tolerance, tailored location aimed high strength possibility, being non corrosive and lighter makes them outperforming materials to be used.

Increasing computational power let us have more specific design iterations and simulate the solutions on computer without trying physically, multiple times and loosing time and resources. Using this technological advantage we came up that ribbed designs for nose cones became the best efficient solution. It decreases weight by 61% and has 90% less production time.

What is the importance of thermostructurals in Space Programs?

Thermostructural composite parts are also leading area for composite parts. Considering exiting gases reaching around 3200 Degree Celcius at exit cones are not likely to be standing these types of heats with metal components. Carbon-Silicon Carbide composites are main materials. Carbon-carbon composite parts are having high heat resistance and not easily wear in high thermal shocks when they are reinforced by Silicon and Silicon Carbides. This process can be LSI (Liquid Silicon Infiltration).

Figure 1 NASA / Carla Thomas - Armstrong Photo Gallery
Figure 1 NASA / Carla Thomas - Armstrong Photo Gallery

LSI process was developed by DLR (Das Deutsche Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt) for fabrication of C/C-SiC custom composite parts. X-38 Crew Return Vehicle used C/C-SiC parts in its nose cap to have thermal protection.(Fig.1) Only 6mm thick layer of shell is enough to have enough amount of protection was able to serve required parameters. Jet vanes on the other hand require higher thermal protection for positioning thrust direction. Ceramic coating is applied to C/C-SiC composites to ensure the required abrasion and fracture toughness. C-fiber reinforced SiC composites are used for heat resistance, thermal shocks, abrasion resistance and low density requirements. Launch vehicles are highly rely on these composites.

Space technologies have been always leading innovations and composites have been a big part of it. Custom composite manufacturing helped many mission to be able to possible and successfully operated. There are several types of composites which are used to overcome different challenges. FMLs for providing better fatigue properties and thermostructurals for heat resistance requirements. For future missions weight reduction needs to be increased by subtracting currently used metals. We require long service life composites for the space colonization and custom composites manufacturing should be evolve in such direction.


  1. Asundi and A. Y. N. Choi, "Fiber metal laminates: An advanced material for future aircraft," Journal of Materials Processing Technology, vol. 63, pp. 384-394, 1997/01/01/ 1997.


  3. I. M. Industries, "A carbon-fibre satellite " FLIGHT International, p. 107, 17 July 1969.

  4. W.-X. Wang, Y. Takao, and T. Matsubara, "Galvanic CorrosionResistant Carbon Fibermetal Laminates " presented at the International Conference On Composite Materials Japan, 2007.

  5. S. Dutton, D. Kelly, and A. Baker, Composite Materials for Aircraft Structures, Second Edition: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004.

  6. P. J. Jarosław Bieniaś, "LOW VELOCITY IMPACT RESISTANCE OF ALUMINUM/CARBON-EPOXY FIBER METAL LAMINATES," Composites Theory and Practice, vol. 12, pp. 193-197, 2012.

  7. P. K. Mallick, Fiber-Reinforced Composites: Materials, Manufacturing, and Design, 3 ed.

  8. N. A. Patil, S. S. Mulik, K. S. Wangikar, and A. P. Kulkarni, "Characterization of Glass Laminate Aluminium Reinforced Epoxy- A Review," Procedia Manufacturing, vol. 20, pp. 554-562, 2018/01/01/ 2018.P. K. Mallick, Composites Engineering Handbook.

  9. Y. Nawab, F. Jacquemin, P. Casari, N. Boyard, Y. Borjon-Piron, and V. Sobotka, Study of variation of thermal expansion coefficients in carbon/epoxy laminated composite plates, 2013.

  10. J. Bieniaś and P. Jakubczak, "Impact damage growth in carbon fibre aluminium laminates," Composite Structures, vol. 172, pp. 147-154, 2017/07/15/ 2017.

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