The largest and heaviest (when loaded) element of the space shuttle, the ET has three major components: the forward liquid oxygen tank, an unpressurized intertank that contains most of the electrical components, and the aft liquid hydrogen tank. The ET is 153.8 feet long and has a diameter of 27.6 feet.
Beginning with the STS-6 mission, a lightweight ET was introduced. Although future tanks may vary slightly, each will weigh approximately 66,000 pounds inert. The last heavyweight tank, flown on STS-7, weighed approximately 77,000 pounds inert. For each pound of weight reduced from the ET, the cargo-carrying capability of the space shuttle spacecraft is increased almost one pound. The weight reduction was accomplished by eliminating portions of stringers (structural stiffeners running the length of the hydrogen tank), using fewer stiffener rings and by modifying major frames in the hydrogen tank. Also, significant portions of the tank are milled differently to reduce thickness, and the weight of the ET's aft solid rocket booster attachments were reduced by using a stronger, yet lighter and less expensive titanium alloy. Earlier several hundred pounds were eliminated by deleting the anti-geyser line. The line paralleled the oxygen feed line and provided a circulation path for liquid oxygen to reduce accumulation of gaseous oxygen in the feed line while the oxygen tank was being filled before launch. After propellant loading data from ground tests and the first few space shuttle missions was assessed, the anti- geyser line was removed for STS-5 and subsequent missions. The total length and diameter of the ET remain unchanged.
The ET is attached to the orbiter at one forward attachment point and two aft points. In the aft attachment area, there are also umbilicals that carry fluids, gases, electrical signals and electrical power between the tank and the orbiter. Electrical signals and controls between the orbiter and the two solid rocket boosters also are routed through those umbilicals.
The liquid oxygen tank is an aluminum monocoque structure composed of a fusion-welded assembly of preformed, chem-milled gores, panels, machined fittings and ring chords. It operates in a pressure range of 20 to 22 psig. The tank contains anti-slosh and anti-vortex provisions to minimize liquid residuals and damp fluid motion. The tank feeds into a 17-inch- diameter feed line that conveys the liquid oxygen through the intertank, then outside the ET to the aft right-hand ET / orbiter disconnect umbilical. The 17-inch-diameter feed line permits liquid oxygen to flow at approximately 2,787 pounds per second with the SSMEs operating at 104 percent or permits a maximum flow of 17,592 gallons per minute. The liquid oxygen tank's double-wedge nose cone reduces drag and heating, contains the vehicle's ascent air data system (for nine tanks only) and serves as a lightning rod. The liquid oxygen tank's volume is 19,563 cubic feet. It is 331 inches in diameter, 592 inches long and weighs 12,000 pounds empty.
The intertank is a steel / aluminum semimonocoque cylindrical structure with flanges on each end for joining the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks. The intertank houses ET instrumentation components and provides an umbilical plate that interfaces with the ground facility arm for purge gas supply, hazardous gas detection and hydrogen gas boiloff during ground operations. It consists of mechanically joined skin, stringers and machined panels of aluminum alloy. The intertank is vented during flight. The intertank contains the forward SRB-ET attach thrust beam and fittings that distribute the SRB loads to the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks. The intertank is 270 inches long, 331 inches in diameter and weighs 12,100 pounds.
Each propellant tank has a vent and relief valve at its forward end. This dual-function valve can be opened by ground support equipment for the vent function during prelaunch and can open during flight when the ullage (empty space) pressure of the liquid hydrogen tank reaches 38 psig or the ullage pressure of the liquid oxygen tank reaches 25 psig.
The liquid oxygen tank contains a separate, pyrotechnically operated, propulsive tumble vent valve at its forward end. At separation, the liquid oxygen tumble vent valve is opened, providing impulse to assist in the separation maneuver and more positive control of the entry aerodynamics of the ET.
There are eight propellant-depletion sensors, four each for fuel and oxidizer. The fuel-depletion sensors are located in the bottom of the fuel tank. The oxidizer sensors are mounted in the orbiter liquid oxygen feed line manifold downstream of the feed line disconnect. During SSME thrusting, the orbiter general-purpose computers constantly compute the instantaneous mass of the vehicle due to the usage of the propellants. Normally, main engine cutoff is based on a predetermined velocity; however, if any two of the fuel or oxidizer sensors sense a dry condition, the engines will be shut down.
The locations of the liquid oxygen sensors allow the maximum amount of oxidizer to be consumed in the engines, while allowing sufficient time to shut down the engines before the oxidizer pumps cavitate (run dry). In addition, 1,100 pounds of liquid hydrogen are loaded over and above that required by the 6-1 oxidizer / fuel engine mixture ratio. This assures that MECO from the depletion sensors is fuel-rich; oxidizer-rich engine shutdowns can cause burning and severe erosion of engine components.
Four pressure transducers located at the top of the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks monitor the ullage pressures.
Each of the two aft external tank umbilical plates mate with a corresponding plate on the orbiter. The plates help maintain alignment among the umbilicals. Physical strength at the umbilical plates is provided by bolting corresponding umbilical plates together. When the orbiter GPCs command external tank separation, the bolts are severed by pyrotechnic devices.
The ET has five propellant umbilical valves that interface with orbiter umbilicals: two for the liquid oxygen tank and three for the liquid hydrogen tank. One of the liquid oxygen tank umbilical valves is for liquid oxygen, the other for gaseous oxygen. The liquid hydrogen tank umbilical has two valves for liquid and one for gas. The intermediate-diameter liquid hydrogen umbilical is a recirculation umbilical used only during the liquid hydrogen chill-down sequence during prelaunch.
A swing-arm-mounted cap to the fixed service structure covers the oxygen tank vent on top of the ET during the countdown and is retracted about two minutes before lift- off. The cap siphons off oxygen vapor that threatens to form large ice on the ET, thus protecting the orbiter's thermal protection system during launch.
Various parameters are monitored and displayed on the flight deck display and control panel and are transmitted to the ground.
The contractor for the external tank is Martin Marietta Aero space, New Orleans, La. The tank is manufactured at Michoud, La. Motorola, Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., is the contractor for range safety receivers.