While everyone was watching the Mars Curiosity Rover as it landed delicately on the surface of the red planet and explored its surroundings, other NASA projects have focused on analyzing the atmosphere and obtaining other data. Without aluminum soldering as part of creating composite structures, none of that would be possible.
MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) will not reach its expected orbit around Mars until September, but it is already an example of the efforts to create long-lasting chassis to handle rough landings and other extreme conditions. The frame is made of aluminum sheeting with composite materials in between the metal materials and is based on advancements of joining these materials pioneered by the supercar industry to improve safety of drivers and their passengers.
Combining the lattice-based honeycomb aluminum panels with the composite inner layer offers an excellent strength to weight ratio, with the orbiter’s main structure able to withstand forces of up to 61,000 pounds, or six times the force of gravity. The new bus, as a reference, weighs just 40 percent as much as a similar orbiter launched in 1998 that was designed to analyze the climate of Mars.
MAVEN’s activities will focus on assessing the boundary of the planet’s atmosphere and space. Scientists have found in previous expeditions that there is significant evidence that there was water on Mars based on the surface features of riverine networks and lake basins. However, the current conditions are inhospitable, and the working hypothesis is that solar winds eroded the atmosphere, processes that could help to explain not just the evaporation of water but also whether or not that could affect the amount of water on Earth.
In terms of the orbiter’s construction, it is a demonstration of the importance of aluminum soldering using joining materials that can operate at relatively low temperatures. All materials expand under heat, and the difference in the rates between aluminum and composite materials can lead to fracturing if not properly accounted for either in the design or by the use of solder that minimizes these issues.
The applications for these joining materials go beyond spacecraft, however. In addition to helping to create safer frames for high-performance vehicles, ongoing efforts to improve photovoltaic, or solar panel installations will also benefit from low-temperature solders for aluminum and other metals used in various projects.