Saturday, May 16, 2020


Snoopy's descent stage was jettisoned into lunar orbit with more than 8 tons of hypergolic propellants still aboard. If the stage orbit was long lived, what happened to all this fuel? This might be the thing that brought the stage out of orbit, so in this post I will examine the possible outcomes.

Descent Stage Cutaway View  Source
The mission was a rehearsal for the Apollo 11, without the landing. They undocked, then did the Descent Orbit Insertion (DOI) burn to drop the orbit closer to the surface, as Apollo 11 would. Then they did an additional "phasing burn" to get the right alignment with the command module for the rendezvous. One orbit later the stage was jettisoned. These two short maneuvers used only a small fraction of the fuel, leaving the tanks at about 96% of their capacity

This excerpt from the Mission Report shows the quantities of propellants loaded and consumed
The stage was not designed for long life, so no one knows exactly what might have happened. There are some facts in various NASA reports that offer clues, so we'll map out the clues and then make some guesses about the eventual outcome.

In a previous post I showed a simplified model of the Descent Propulsion System, or DPS. It was a simple, reliable system with tanks fed by pressurized helium. The tanks of fuel and oxidizer led to the combustion chamber, so when a valve was opened, the propellants mixed, ignited, and burned, creating thrust. In the earlier post I described how the main "supercritical" helium tank likely vented to space within a few days after staging. Then what?

Here is a complete schematic of the DPS plumbing. There are actually two helium tanks, plus various valves, burst disks, and so forth.
In order to analyze what happened, its useful to simplify things, as I show below. The "Squib valves" were sealed during flight and then opened using small explosive charges when the engine was activated. Once opened, they never close, so it's cleaner to show them as open pipes. One set of squib valves was used to vent the propellants on the lunar surface, so for Apollo 10 these remained sealed. I believe they can be ignored. (I don't think it's possible that they could activate themselves.) So I eliminated those as well. The Supercritical Helium tank no doubt vented within a few days after staging, so I also eliminated that from the diagram, showing instead an opening to the vacuum of space. Here is the simplified schematic:

What do we know about this system when it was cast off? We know that the fuel and oxidizer tanks were pressurized to 247 PSI at 70 degrees. We know the tanks were still 96% full. The small Helium tank in the schematic is the high pressure "start bottle". (It was used to initially pressurize the tanks and start pushing fuel through the heat exchanger.) We know this tank had a slow leak. We know that the burst disks were rated to open between 260 and 275 PSI. We know the quad check valves might have had leakage rates up to 100 standard cubic centimeters per hour. We know that even without the main helium pressurization system, the DPS could operate from existing tank pressures, in "blowdown" mode, generating significant thrust.

We also know that the stage was slowly tumbling in orbit. The dramatic film taken during staging captures the unplanned attitude excursions, and a post-mission guidance report shows the rates at the moment of staging in this chart:

At staging, Snoopy's tail had yaw, pitch, and roll rates of -9, -4, and +7 degrees per second. So that's one full yaw rotation every 40 seconds, one pitch rotation every 90 seconds, and one roll every 52 seconds.

So what happened? I think there are four possibilities. 1) Slow leaks might have allowed the tanks to depressurize, until the stage reached a stable state. 2) The tank pressures might have increased until the burst disks failed, allowing things to vent to space. 3) Propellants might have leaked back through the check valves, into common helium plumbing, which might have led to combustion or even a catastrophic explosion. 4) Something might have caused the throttle to open, allowing the engine to start generating thrust. Let's take these one by one, in reverse order.

If something caused the throttle to open up, residual pressure in the tanks would have allowed for significant thrust in "blowdown" mode. For example, as Apollo 13 was headed back to Earth, it was noted that the DPS could provide an 800 f.p.s. velocity change to the full LM-CM-SM stack in this mode. In the case of Snoopy, the volume of gas in the tanks was lower, reducing the possible burn time. However the stage was much lighter than the Apollo 13 stack. If the throttle opened up, it might have knocked the stage out of orbit.
Detailed view of the throttle assembly (source)

I really doubt this happened, because several things would need to fail for it to occur. One of the two actuator isolation valves would have to fail hard open, allowing pressurized fuel to flow into the valve actuator, forcing the main shutoff valves open. Then the "thrust control actuator" would have needed to fail into the open state. Designing a thrust control valve that could fail open doesn't sound like something that would have passed muster during Apollo. If you have deeper insights, please leave a comment. In my view, a spontaneous blowdown burn is unlikely.

How about reverse leakage through the check valves? This could create big problems because it would allow both fuel and oxidizer to flow into the common helium feed plumbing. A high profile explosion during a ground test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in April of 2019 was attributed to oxidizer leaking into helium pipes. NASA documents do state that early check valves had a higher leak rate than originally intended. So could this leakage cause the stage to explode?

For the check vales to leak, there must be reduced pressure in the helium feed. The helium system was still being fed by the small ambient "start bottle", so it probably remained at 247 PSI for some time. During the flight, the ambient bottle pressure dropped 35 PSI in 97 hours, apparently due to a leak that developed during launch. At this rate, the bottle pressure would have dropped to 247 PSI in about one year. After the other helium system vented, the leak rate might have increased.

So once the pressure was low enough for leakage to occur, does that result in an explosion? Honestly I don't know how to evaluate this possibility. If the leakage was in gaseous form, any reaction would probably be low-power. If liquids leaked, and eventually flowed together, the reaction would be more violent, perhaps even powerful enough to blow out the plumbing, or even trigger the complete destruction of the stage. Leave a note in the comments if you have insight into this possibility.

How about venting through the burst disks? These disks were designed to open up if the pressure in a tank reached 270 PSI, give or take. The tank pressures could have reached this level if they heated up, since pressure increases with temperature. The temperature in the tanks was 70 F after the second burn, and a rise of 43 degrees would have raised the pressure up to the nominal burst pressure. Could this have occurred? It seems unlikely. Orbiting the moon every two hours, half of each orbit in searing sunlight and half in freezing darkness, it seems that the heavy tanks would slowly reach thermal equilibrium. The surface of the moon in sunlight actually is quite hot, and radiates a lot of heat out into space, adding to the direct heat from the sun. But it doesn't seem that this would be enough to raise the temperature of those tanks to 110 degrees. Perhaps the hot/cold temperature cycles could lead to failure of the burst disks at a lower pressure? Again, I don't know how to evaluate this.

If the burst disks did open up, I don't think the orbit would have been significantly affected. Due to the "thrust neutralizers" and the tumbling of the stage, the net thrust would have been low. I believe this case would be similar to what occurred when the helium tank vented.

Finally, what about slow leaks that allowed the tanks to depressurize? For the fuel side, at least, this could have occurred through the isolation valves and pilot valves of the shutoff valve assembly. For the oxidizer this path doesn't exist. That sets up the possibility that the ox tanks, still pressurized, could have leaked back through the helium plumbing and into the depressurized fuel tanks. Kaboom!

It bothers me to say it, but I just can't make any solid prediction about what happened to these propellants. Ultimately there are two possibilities. Either the stage reached an inert state, and remained in orbit, or it didn't. The only way to find out is to look, and I hope someday the looking will occur.

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