Musk confirms that ceramic tiles are still needed for Starship and that Texas will be a launch site

by | Mar 19, 2019 | SpaceX, Technology, test

Jules Verne in his 19th century sci-fi books From Earth to the Moon and is sequel Around the Moon, had the designers of “Columbiad” super cannon wondering from which US state the cannon-launched shell-like spacecraft would be launched from.  The finalists were Florida and Texas.  And with an almost mystically predictive view of the future, Verne chose Florida, the state from where all human NASA missions later flew from.

Well it seems that SpaceX is trying to make amends to Texas.  In addition to making its imminent tests of a “Starship hopper” technology test vehicle for the first stage from Boca Chica in Texas, SpaceX founder and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, has confirmed that full flights of the Super Heavy (aka BFR)/Starship combination in which he plans to make lunar and Mars missions, will take place from Texas as well as “Cape Kennedy” – the old name for the combined Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center area.

According to NASASpaceflight.com this hopper test vehicle will no longer have the pointed nose that it was originally going to have.  It had been previously damaged after falling over in storm winds and is deemed not worth repairing.  As it is, at the low velocities the test vehicle will be flying at on its up and down rids, it was not actually needed except for aesthetic reasons.

Hexagonal ceramic thermal protection tiles under test at SpaceX. Courtesy: Elon Musk/Twitter

Elon Musk has also noted in a Twitter release that the stainless steel-walled Starship will still employ ceramic tiling (possibly with Pica-X style ablative as well) on its very hot windward side during re-entry but that its leeward side can get away with no heat shielding albeit with some transpirational cooling in certain “hotspot” areas. This employs liquid methane as the cooling fluid which is pumped through pores in the skin.

Musk has further confirmed that the main Superbooster rocket element will also use stainless steel and thus be able to be re-entered from suborbital flight at Mach 8 -9.  Teslerati.com has noted that SpaceX has destroyed most of its large scale composite tank tooling.

Comment by David Todd: This column originally wondered if transpiration cooling – which Elon Musk originally implied would be solely used – will be good enough for re-entry – especially from high energy orbits and trajectories.  It now seems that Elon Musk – SpaceX Chief Designer – has decided to use tiles as the main heat shield for initial versions of his Starship, with transpiration cooling for only certain sections on the leeward side.

Moving away from composite propellant tanks is probably a good idea.  They do offer large scale weight savings but they are too complicated and their failure modes far too unpredictable to work safely on a multi-cycle reusable vehicle. Worse, they have a tendency to leak as the failed X-33 SSTO (Single Stage to Orbit) programme found out. Composites can still be useful – as a lightweight sheath-like strengthener to conventional aluminium lithium tanks – but are best not used as the primary fluid retaining wall.

Even so, Musk is probably doing the right thing in going for the stainless steel alternative, given its excellent thermal properties relative to its weight. It was a decision which Musk himself concedes is “counter intuitive”.  Nevertheless, he will know that he has wasted time and a great deal of money investing in large scale composite tank technology.  It has proven an expensive cul-du-sac for SpaceX.

About Seradata

Seradata produce the renowned SpaceTrak Launch & Satellite Database. Trusted by 100 of the world’s leading Space organisations, SpaceTrak is a fully queryable database used for market analysis, failure/risk assessment, spectrum analysis and space situational awareness (SSA).

For more information go to www.seradata.com/spacetrak

Related Articles

SLS saves itself with successful full-duration engine firing but its career may still be short

NASA’s much delayed and very expensive SLS heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV) has coming under renewed criticism as SpaceX’s partly reusable Read more

Close but no cigar (again): like its predecessor Starship SN9 test flight goes well until explosive crash landing fires up FAA controversy further

Just as the Starship SN8 test launch ended in an explosive landing failure in December – after all the hard Read more

Spaceship prototype SN8 flies well…well right up until the explosive crash landing

In what most independent observers judged to be a successful test flight (well, for most of it), the Starship prototype Read more

SATELLITE 2020: Musk wants to keep Starlink constellation and make it work…then notes quick relaunch ability of Starship launcher

The much proclaimed Monday keynote at SATELLITE 2020, featured SpaceX founder Elon Musk. He spoke about the future of his Read more

SpaceX Starship Mk.1 suffers spectacular tank failure during pressure test

Officially it is not a blow to SpaceX, given that its Starship Mk.1 suborbital hopping test rocket was not going Read more

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Arianespace Vega rockets both conduct early morning launches

The first launch that took place on 29 April was conducted by Arianespace. This mission saw a Vega rocket successfully Read more

SpaceX launches second commercial crew mission to the ISS

On 23 April SpaceX successfully launched the "Crew 2" mission on a Falcon 9 vehicle into low Earth orbit from Read more

Cookies & Privacy

Click here to read about use of cookies on the website

Categories

Archives