Sunday, March 15, 2020

Supercritical Helium


In previous posts I showed that the Apollo 10 descent stage orbit was stable over decades and that the lunar atmosphere could not have slowed the stage significantly. Is the stage still in lunar orbit today?

It seems clear that an inert object would still be in orbit today, but the stage was hardly inert. It was much closer to a flying bomb, with over 8 tons of highly reactive propellants, plus a tank with 40-odd pounds of liquid helium, which was slowly warming up, slowly increasing its pressure, slowly approaching the breaking point. Let's look at what would have happened next.

Film taken as it was jettisoned shows the ladder and footpad of the stage. Note the "upside down" lunar horizon above the pad.


To understand what might have happened, we need to understand the design of the descent engine. To keep things simple, reliable, and light, the Descent Propulsion System (DPS) employed a pressure-fed system. Helium gas was used to pressurize the propellant tanks, so that when valves where opened the fuel and oxidizer would flow into the combustion chamber. The propellants were hypergolic, so they would burn as soon as they came into contact. The image at right, excerpted from this presentation, shows a simplified view of the system.

To save weight, the helium was not stored as a gas. That would have required a very heavy tank, able to withstand very high pressure. Instead it was stored as a "supercritical" liquid, at very low temperature and modest pressure, inside an insulated tank along the lines of a big thermos bottle. This worked as a lightweight way to store the helium, but it was not designed to work for a long time. Heat would leak into the helium tank during the mission, raising its temperature and pressure. Eventually this rising pressure could cause a "burst disc" safety valve to open, and the helium would vent out to space.

On a normal mission the engine would be fired long before the pressure reached the breaking point. Once on the lunar surface the extra helium would be vented. For Apollo 10 most of the original helium was still in the tank when it was cut loose. (The Mission Report states that 44 pounds were loaded at launch, and the DOI and phasing burns consumed only 4% of the fuel.) Sometime after staging, the pressure would have climbed to the breaking point. How long did that take?

The pressure inside the helium tank was monitored by mission control, and the Mission Report states that the pressure was rising at 5.9 psi per hour after launch. A report on the DPS showed that the tank pressure at the end of the phasing burn was at 1160 psi (and still rising, due to the way fuel was piped through the helium during the burn) and that the burst disc was designed to open at 1881-1967 psi. From this it seems very likely that Snoopy's descent stage vented the helium between 4 and 6 days after staging, sometime between May 26-28, 1969.

How did the venting affect the orbit? Could it bring the stage down? This document can help answer the question. Figure 9.1-3 in the document, copied below, shows the time and force for a full tank to vent, and the resulting impulse. The total impulse to vent a full tank is ~1700 lb-secs, over the course of 120 seconds. Let's ignore the fact that the stage is tumbling, and assume this impulse all contributes to a change in velocity. With the stage weighing a total of 21,000 pounds, the venting could change the velocity by 2.6 feet per second at most.

This graph shows the thrust generated by helium as it vented to space after blowing the burst valves
Keep in mind, the stage was moving about 5600 feet per second in it's orbit. So even if this 2.6 fps change was exactly aligned to the direction of motion, it's much less than the variation I simulated in my Monte Carlo run. I simulated velocity variations of plus or minus 65 fps, and all the runs stayed in orbit for at least 10 years with no sign of decay. Furthermore, since the stage was tumbling in orbit, the overall impact of the venting would certainly have been much less than 2.6 fps. As it spun around, forward thrust would cancel out backward thrust. It seems very likely that the overall change in velocity was less than 1 fps.

There is another data point to consider. During Apollo 13, as they were returning to Earth using the LM as a lifeboat, the descent helium tank vented. (In addition to the serious problem Apollo 13 faced, this tank apparently had an insulation problem, and warmed up faster than it should have. It vented about 109 hours into the mission.) Although the venting did affect the roll rate of the combined LM/CSM stack, it did not affect the trajectory in any substantial way, and no final course correction was needed. This is good evidence that venting the tank would not strongly affect Snoopy's orbit.

My conclusion is that the venting of the helium didn't bring down the stage. Now we are left with a mere 8 tons of hypergolic propellants, held back by aging valves and decaying seals, and exposed to pure hot sunlight for one hour, then to the freezing black of space the next, orbit after orbit after orbit. In an upcoming post I'll examine what might have happened to all this fuel.


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