Update: Tuesday night, SpaceX would not confirm that a major deal had been reached. “Toray is one of a number of suppliers we are working with to meet our carbon fiber needs for the production of Falcon missiles and Dragon spacecraft, and we have not announced any new agreements at this time,” a company spokesperson told Ars. “As our business continues to grow, the amount of carbon fiber we use can continue to grow.”
Original story: SpaceX seems to be betting big on carbon fiber composites, which could increase the capacity of its future rockets to get people and supplies into space — and eventually to the surface of Mars. According to a report in Nikkei Asian review, SpaceX has signed an agreement with Toray Carbon Fibers estimated to be worth $2 billion to $3 billion. The total price and delivery dates have yet to be determined.
It is not immediately clear when and in which launch vehicles these lightweight composites will be used by SpaceX. But the company isn’t the only one interested: NASA and other space companies have been experimenting with the materials for their potential to increase the amount of payload a rocket can carry. They can also lower the total cost of production.
However, the size of the deal seems significant. If the value of the deal is reportedly correct, in the billions of dollars, it seems likely that the carbon fiber composites would be used in SpaceX’s proposed Mars Colonial Transporter rocket. This is the very large (but still under development) rocket the company plans to use to transport humans to Mars. SpaceX is well advanced with production of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is based on the Falcon 9 core stage. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which SpaceX successfully landed this year, has tank walls and domes made of aluminum-lithium alloy.
Carbon fibers, which are generally woven into a fabric, possess desirable properties such as high tensile strength, low bulk, high temperature tolerance and low thermal expansion. This has made them very popular with aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus. Headquartered in Japan, Toray is a leading supplier of carbon fiber to aircraft manufacturers. Ironically, Toray will likely produce carbon fibers for SpaceX at his Decatur, Alabama, facility, which is in the same city where SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance manufactures its rockets.
The carbon fiber deal could be another sign, along with the company’s recent move of its Raptor engine to a testing facility in Texas, that SpaceX is making substantial progress toward developing and launching rockets to Mars, including possible human missions somewhere. in the 2020s. Investing $2 billion or more in carbon fiber suggests that the scale of SpaceX’s Mars ambitions is indeed grand.