Starship 20 loses thermal protection tiles with header tank vent

Starship sunset and Thermal Protection Tiles

The Thermal Protection System on SpaceX’s Starship has been the topic of much discussion. Ship 20 had its thermal protection installed, but the quality of those tiles has come into question. Now, with the vent of the Ship 20’s header tank, many tiles on Ship 20 flew off and hit the ground.

Thermal protection tiles are key to a spacecraft surviving reentry. During reentry, a spacecraft will gain a massive amount of heat, converting the velocity of the vehicle to heat through friction with the air. There are a few ways to deal with that heat. An ablative heat shield will heat up and burn away, carrying away the energy. The problem with ablative heat shields is that they burn up, and need to be replaced – that doesn’t work if you want to re-launch a spacecraft within an hour of landing, as SpaceX eventually does with Starship. In order to (eventually) allow quick reusability, Starship instead uses ceramic thermal protection tiles to insulate the spacecraft from the heat of reentry. The tiles, like those of the Space Shuttle, are extremely lightweight and fragile.

Starship loses ceramic thermal protection tiles with vent

Tiles have cracked and fallen off before, but the thermal protection system tiles flew off of Starship far more violently today.

Each Starship has roughly 25,000 thermal protection tiles, and production of these tiles is not quick. SpaceX makes use of a heat shield “bakery” in Cocoa Beach, Florida and will begin producing tiles in Starbase. The current tiles and attachment system seem prone to cracking and falling off, which won’t work if Starship 20, and future Starships, are to survive reentry. SpaceX will need to figure out how to reliably produce more robust thermal tiles and mount them if SpaceX is to fully kit out multiple Starships. SpaceX seems to be doing just that. A slight color variation in the tiles is due to SpaceX experimenting with production.

They will also need to ramp up production of the tiles in order to have enough tiles for a whole Starship fleet.

Featured Image Credit: Austin Barnard and Derek Wise for Space Explored

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