SpaceX is a leader in aerospace innovation, the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) awarded the company a contract valued at $8.5 million to develop heat shields for hypersonic vehicles. (Aviation Week reporter first-found the contract announcement and shared via Twitter, linked below). According to the beta.Sam.gov website which publishes official federal award data, the contract SpaceX earned is from the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate for a project called “Multipurpose Thermal Protection Systems for Hypersonics.” SpaceX is tasked with researching materials to manufacture technologically advanced heat shields to protect vehicles, such as aircraft and defense systems, during hypersonic flights. “The objective is to refine thermal protection system manufacturing technologies to enable low-cost, high volume production of next generation TPS [thermal protection systems],” says the award notice on the federal website. The contract was awarded to SpaceX in December last year but was published publicly on the government website on February 26.
SpaceX has experience developing thermal protection systems for its launch vehicles. The company’s Dragon spacecraft that launches atop a Falcon 9 rocket, features an advanced heat shield to protect astronauts and cargo as they liftoff and upon return. SpaceX created the PICA-X heat shield, based on a variant of NASA's proprietary Phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) material. When Dragon returns, it plunges through Earth’s atmosphere experiencing temperatures as high as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The Dragon spacecraft’s heat shield has worked well and even enabled SpaceX to reuse the capsules with little refurbishment.
The company is currently working on the development of Starship, its next-generation stainless-steel spacecraft that will be capable of transporting one hundred passengers to the Moon and Mars. The spacecraft will feature a heat shield on its belly, for protection upon atmospheric descent. Prototypes of Starship have been seen sporting hexagonal-shaped heat shield tiles that engineers are testing. The founder of SpaceX Elon Musk said in 2019 that the tiles are made out of ceramic, the hottest parts of the tiles can withstand temperatures of 1,650 Kelvin, he said. That is equivalent to 2,510 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat shield tiles are hexagonal because it offers “no straight path for hot gas to accelerate through the gaps,” Musk said. You can watch a video clip of Starship heat tiles SpaceX is working on, shown below.
Testing Starship heatshield hex tiles pic.twitter.com/PycE9VthxQ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 17, 2019
Out on launch pad, engine swap underway pic.twitter.com/QNXGtL90WN— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 25, 2021
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Featured Image Source: SpaceX
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.