Anonymous asked in Science & MathematicsAstronomy & Space · 1 decade ago

What happens to those enormous burnt-orange fuel tanks that are attached to the space shuttles?

Those tanks are made here in New Orleans, where I live. But what happens to them after they provide the fuel to launch the space shuttles into orbit? Do they fall to earth and later recovered to be re-used? Or do they detach from the shuttle once they get into orbit, and become "space litter?"

8 Answers

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago
    Best Answer

    The tank is destroyed intentionally by destructive reentry.

    They don't reach orbit, they are left in a suborbital trajectory which has it's lowest point deep inside Earth's atmosphere. The orange foam coating is no heat shield, the material literally evaporates in the first minutes of reentry. The tank structure itself is just plain aluminum, which gets soft already at 220°C, and melts around 500°C.

    Additionally, the tank is made tumbling by dumping the remaining fuel and gases inside the tanks through a special dump valve. See there, how the venting looks like:

    Youtube thumbnail

    (The bright blue color comes from the oxygen reflecting sunlight)

    The aerodynamic friction and the tumbling motion, which prevents the tank from stabilizing in nose first attitude, ensures that the tank first breaks up into a known number of major groups, which further disintegrate as these parts reach even higher temperatures as the tank would by staying intact. Intact, the tank is just a large hollow and light object, with a big surface area and a low mass (about 13 tons if I remember correctly). When it breaks up, the parts are no longer enclose a volume and the surface area of all parts together drops below the intact area. And the result is pretty simple: Higher mass per aerodynamic surface means higher temperatures (Lower deceleration -> Higher speed at lower altitudes -> higher temperatures).

    The only part of the ET, which will reach Earth more or less intact, will be the massive beam connecting the two solid rocket boosters in the intertank section.

  • 1 decade ago

    Actually the former answer is partly true. What falls in the Atlantic is the SRB's, the Solid Rocket Boosters made in Utah which are re-used. The external tanks which was the original question, which are made in Michoud, La are not re-used. They usually fall into the Indian Ocean depending on heading and trajectory. It is designed for the most of it to burn up in the atmosphere but there are some parts that do survive. This information can be found on Nasa's website. Very Good Question.

  • hooten
    Lv 4
    3 years ago

    It burns up on reentry. some human beings have mentioned that in simple terms burning the optimal engines some seconds longer could positioned it in orbit, and that it ought to then be used because of the fact the shell of an area station, however the technologies to open it up and sparkling out the unused gasoline and then set up the kit to make it liveable would not exist and became deemed impractical by way of NASA, so as that they only drop it a pair seconds earlier the commute reaches orbit and enable it reenter. The commute makes use of the Orbital Maneuvering equipment (OMS, the two little rockets in the top corners above the optimal engines, which burn gasoline from small on-board tanks, no longer from the exterior tank) to make the final little push into orbit.

  • 1 decade ago

    The white ones are painted and are released before they leave the earths atmosphere and fall back to earth with parachutes and are reused, the big rusty one burns up on re entry into the earths atmosphere, that's why they don't bother painting them.

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  • Anonymous
    6 years ago

    It never burns atleast all videos on youtube prove it !! It falls in the oceans or snow capped mountains of himalayas or Tibet..

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    These are fabicated to fall into the Atlantic sea upon use of the lift off fuel, (not by acheiving orbirt), and are recovered each time by the US Navy for re-use. They do not burn away as suggested by one of your answerers.

  • 1 decade ago

    if they are detached within the earths gravitational field, they come down to the earth and are burnt away by friction(cause they are coming at really high speeds and the atmospheric friction is no longer negligeable

    If they are detached outside,then they will become space litter......but why are we interested in detaching them outside the earths gravitational field?

    the reason why the tanks are detached is so that they will not be an unneccesary weight for the rocket to carry

    in space there is very little gravity(almost 0)

    so there is no unneccesary burden on the rocket

  • 1 decade ago

    they fall back to earth and then are recovered to be used later

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