SpaceX heat shield material passes high temperature tests simulating reentry conditions of Dragon spacecraft

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

That's from the press release put out by SpaceX today here, on the successful test of the heat shield material the Dragon spacecraft will be using to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

Here are the most interesting parts:

Subjected to temperatures as high as 1850 degrees Celsius, the tests simulated the reentry heating conditions that will be experienced by the Dragon capsule. Panels of the high performance carbon-based material will protect cargo and crew during the spacecraft's return from Earth orbit.
“We tested three different variants developed by SpaceX,” said Tom Mueller, VP of Propulsion, SpaceX. “Compared to the PICA heat shield flown successfully on NASA's Stardust sample return capsule, our SpaceX versions equaled or improved the performance of the heritage material in all cases.”
“The arc jet tests represent the culmination of an aggressive six-month development effort, and our goals have been met or exceeded,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. “Dragon will be the first craft to return from Low Earth Orbit using a PICA-based thermal protection system.”

SpaceX is only the second commercial producer of a PICA-based material. All of SpaceX's initial production will be used for domestic in-house applications including the heat shields of the Dragon spacecraft, and the Falcon 9 second stage, which is designed to return from orbit for recovery and reuse.

The inaugural Dragon spacecraft flight is scheduled for 2009 aboard SpaceX's new Falcon 9 launcher.

The Dragon capsule will enter the Earth's atmosphere at around 7 kilometers per second, heating the exterior of the shield to up to 1850 degrees Celsius. However, just a few inches of the PICA-X material will keep the interior of the capsule at room temperature.

In January 2006, NASA's Stardust sample return capsule, equipped with a PICA heat shield, set the record for the fastest reentry speed of a spacecraft into Earth's atmosphere — experiencing 12.9 kilometers per second. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will return at just over half of that speed, and will experience only one tenth as much heating.

So looks like the reentry shield material is a done deal, if it has improved on the one used with Stardust but will only be subject to a tenth the heating.


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