Report: SpaceX Makes Large Carbon Fiber Purchase From Japan

Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX

Some news from Japan about SpaceX:

Japanese materials maker Toray Industries has agreed to supply carbon fiber to U.S. startup SpaceX for use in the bodies of rockets and space vehicles.

The multiyear deal with Tesla founder Elon Musk’s 14-year-old venture is estimated to be worth 200 billion yen to 300 billion yen ($1.99 billion to $2.98 billion) in total. The two sides are aiming to finalize the agreement this fall after hammering out prices, time frames and other terms.

SpaceX aims to hold down expenses by re-using rockets and spacecraft. Originally, the company made rockets mostly out of aluminum to keep costs low, using carbon fiber only for a few parts, such as connecting joints.

The U.S. company said in a statement, “Toray is one of a number of suppliers we work with to meet our carbon fiber needs for Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft production, and we haven’t announced any new agreements at this time. As our business continues to grow, the amount of carbon fiber we use may continue to grow.”

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  • Michael Vaicaitis

    This is very intriguing news. Does it represent a shift away from aluminium for SpaceX cores?. Is it for MCT? or BFR? or F9 2nd stage to achieve the reusability that Shotwell recently mentioned? or a complete new Falcon-Next?. We might find out in September.

  • Larry J

    From what I’ve read, they’re going to get the composite materials from Toray’s Decatur, Alabama plant.

  • Bulldog

    First thing that went through my mind as well, will the BFR be a carbon candle? Good thought about the recoverable second stage, hadn’t considered that.

  • JamesG

    Probably not. A CF F9 would be a complete redesign with little benefit. This is probably just a bulk contract for their long-lead components, fairings, landing legs, etc.

  • windbourne

    Too bad. They should have considered buying an American company and then pushing it with others.

  • Unlike aluminum, CF and cryogenics are not a proven technology. With the shift to methane, it only gets worse. While there are supposedly “compatible” matrix materials, I don’t think they’ve been used on an industrial scale. This would be a science project, in every sense of the term, and could be VERY expensive (if it works at all). The positive is that anyone who comes afterwards will know exactly what to do and what not to do.

  • JamesG

    I’m sure they did.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “This is probably just a bulk contract for their long-lead components, fairings, landing legs, etc”
    Considered this, and seems plausible, though the other options are more interesting / exciting / provocative.
    Also, $2-3 billion seems quite a lot for ancillary components on largely metal vehicles that cost circa $30million to build. Even if you allocate an average of $10M worth of CF per vehicle build, that’s 200-300 F9-cores/Dragons which could potentially have 10 reuses each – which equates to 2000-3000 F9 cores or Dragon missions.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Methane is 20 to 40 C “warmer” than LOX, so I don’t see how CH4 worsens the situation. The “densified” LOX is the problem. Dream Chaser uses composites (perhaps not exactly the same thing as CF), so may be MCT could too?. If BFR is truly huge, then skin and structure may not be the same?. No answers really, but possibilities with at least some plausibility.

  • JamesG

    Remember that “valuations” are subjective. And we don’t know the terms of the contract other than “multi-year”. We don’t know what kind of per yard price they are getting. The only thing you really have is that SX has a CF vendor.

    But who knows what Musk has up his sleeve. The MCT “reveal” is coming up…

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    We might well imagine that they could negotiate a fairly favourable per metre price. So, even over 10 years, $2-3 billion on legs, fairings, Dragon skin and other bits-and-bobs seems a bit much. Like I said above the more insightful aspect of this news, if the numbers are to be believed, is the ratio of $2-3 billion in CF to the cost of an F9 or Dragon and the amount of CF presently used on those vehicles.

    As to your earlier point about a CF F9 being of little benefit. Such a redesign would be CH4 powered (admittedly, that’s unlikely for a while yet) that would be much more reusable. And, would have would have a returnable second stage. The potential benefit of mass savings on the second stage are considerable, especially given SpaceX’s stated reusability ambitions. That said, I expect a Merlin powered F9 to be around for at least another few years, but they’re not shy in pushing out new designs/tweaks at a fairly rapid pace.

  • ReSpaceAge
  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Thanks for that – I’ll hazard a guess at more than 31 Raptors, but to be fair he has given himself a number of caveats for error – surely in the ballpark though.

  • Christopher James Huff

    They’ve been putting COPVs in the LOX tank for quite a while now.

  • JamesG

    Educated speculation.

  • duheagle

    My thought is that SpaceX’s heat shield material, PICA-X, is acronymically named for Phenolic-Impregnated Carbon Ablator. The carbon in PICA, I believe, is carbon fiber. If one imagines MCT as a vastly scaled-up Dragon 2 – complete with conformal “pods” for the Raptor engines – then one begins to see where SpaceX might find good use for a serious pile of carbon fiber. And that is, of course, without reckoning with any expansion of carbon fiber’s structural role in BFR-MCT anent the Falcon family.

  • duheagle

    Damned good point.

    I still don’t think BFR or MCT are likely to be announced with composite tankage, but it wouldn’t exactly ruin my day if they were either.

  • therealdmt

    They’re tricking out the Falcons with carbon fiber rims

  • Christopher James Huff

    It’s not at all what I was expecting, they’ve got a lot of experience now with stir-welding lithium-aluminum alloys and building/operating metal spacecraft, and have generally gone for inexpensive and simpler options over more expensive, higher performance ones. But assuming the deal is real, it’s for a lot more than fairings and landing legs.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    More good theories. One thing seems certain, it’s a lot more carbon fibre than they need for just Falcon and Dragon.

  • Saturn13

    O-ATK says they are building a 1st stage SRM of carbon fiber to replace steel in the 12′ d. segmented booster. I forgot how much lighter it was. Less weight, more performance, smaller parachutes but is 40% cheaper. They call it the Dark Knight. This new rocket uses different number of segments and uses a segment for the 2nd stage. Also they will put strap ons if they need them. Use a BE-3 for 3rd stage. A simpler 3rd stage might use the Green Fuel they just announced. By the way that fuel is up to 75% water. A little hard to ignite. So it is not perfect. They say they can launch anything USAF wants and at a considerable savings that anyone else is offering. USAF is paying part. They already have GEM, so they should be able to do it. With Antares having unexpected vibrations, they may need it. They sound like they are using certain throttle settings where there are no vibrations. Turbo pumps probably and what may have wrecked the last Antares. In a recent video Shotwell said they do not have any SRM expertise. Hint we will not build solids like O-ATK. The other good news was that they had just shipped a complete Raptor engine. A lot of preburner firing has been shown of new engines, SpaceX has a complete engine going to Stennis I guess. SpaceX said they would not merge with Tesla, since they had nothing in common. How about carbon fiber bodies?

  • JamesG

    “SpaceX said they would not merge with Tesla, since they had nothing in common. How about carbon fiber bodies?”

    I thought of that too, but like SX, Tesla has a LOT of investment in Al stamping and welding machines. Going to composites means that gets wasted and they have to spend more on different equipment and people with composites skill (its labor intensive, unlike metal).

  • windbourne

    slim chance.
    Several issues here.
    1) MCT is supposed to land on mars. 4 raptors? Hmmmm>
    2) According to both Musk and Shotwell, MCT will be 150-250 tonnes to LEO. This is 100 tonnes. Does not make sense.

  • duheagle

    Correct. My guess is heat shield and engine pods for MCT, but I would not be thunderstruck to be wrong.