SpaceX is on a roll lately. After completing the first full test of its crew-ready Dragon capsule last week, the company is on the verge of launching the interplanetary Starship on its first test flight. Before you send a spacecraft into space, you need to figure out how to get it back to Earth. The Starship will use a network of hexagonal tiles to guard against the heat of re-entry, and CEO Elon Musk just shared a short video of those tiles being tested under intense heat.
In the video below, you can see the hexagonal tiles subjected to the flames from half a dozen torches. According to Musk, the white-hot parts of the panels hit 1,650 Kelvin or 2,510 degrees Fahrenheit (1,377 degrees Celsius). The panels are hexagonal to ensure there is no straight path through which super-heated gas can accelerate. Musk didn’t say what material we’re looking at here, but it’s presumably stainless steel like the rest of the Starship.
These hexagonal sheets will cover the windward side of the vehicle — the stainless steel craft won’t need any on the opposite side. Musk says the panels passed the test, but SpaceX does still intend to add transpirational cooling in the center of the panels to keep them cooler. That means water or methane will slowly seep out through microscopic pores to cool the exterior surface. That should prevent any erosion of the surface and make the Starship a “zero refurbishment” craft. That’s also why the hull is stainless steel instead of the previously promised carbon fiber composite.
The heat shield will be a necessary component of the Starship when it heads into space, but we’re still a long way from that. The prototype Starship being constructed at the company’s Texas facility could take its first step toward interplanetary travel by later this week. Residents of Cameron County, Texas have gotten notices about the upcoming test, which will result in a temporary highway closure.
Testing Starship heatshield hex tiles pic.twitter.com/PycE9VthxQ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 17, 2019
SpaceX recently attached the first Raptor engine to the “Starhopper” prototype. The Starhopper will have three engines, but Musk and company are apparently starting slow. The Starhopper isn’t designed to head into space anyway. Its maiden flight will consist of taking off, hovering, and then landing again. It’s like the old Falcon 9 hopper tests before the first booster landings.
Eventually, the Starship will be able to take as many as 100 people on an interplanetary journey to Mars. Musk says moving to the red planet will cost around $500,000. The first big test of the Starship will be a lunar mission financed by Japanese fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa in the early 2020s.