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Elon Musk turns up the heat on Starship in fiery SpaceX outer shell test

By Benjamin Bullard
SpaceX Starship artist's rendering

Elon Musk’s SpaceX project has taken another fiery step toward its ultimate goal of making a fully-reusable space capsule, thanks to a recent stress test of the reusable Starship vessel’s outer heat shield that’s literally too hot to handle.

Musk tweeted out a short, industrial-strength clip of Starship’s hexagonal tiles being subjected to re-entry temperatures approaching those of the Space Shuttle, pointing out that the white areas, where the temps are at their highest, can top out at a scorching 1,650 degrees Kelvin (about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit) and still take a beating (or should we say a heating?)

We’re a little bummed that SpaceX didn’t use any of Musk’s flame throwers in the clip below, but we’re guessing regular, garden-variety flame thrower fire simply isn’t hot enough to replicate the hellish conditions of burning through the atmosphere. That, plus it’s probably really, really unscientific.

Musk explained that the “White-hot parts reached orbital entry temp of around 1650 Kelvin,” adding that the capsule’s skin may still require additional cooling measures if they detect that the extreme temps are capable of eroding any part of the heat shield. If needed, he tweeted, Starship’s tiles will get supplemental heat resistance in the form of transpiration cooling, which would circulate a gas or liquid through the tile structure to help keep the heat in check.

The heat test is the latest mini-milestone in Starship’s journey toward ferrying passengers first to the moon — and, Musk hopes, of one day carrying people all the way to Mars — while remaining capable of turning right back around for a return trip to Earth. Musk defined the heat test’s success in terms of the vessel’s ability to endure re-entry conditions and then turn around and take off again without the need for any kind of Space Shuttle-like overhaul. “Starship needs to be ready to fly again immediately after landing. Zero refurbishment,” he tweeted.

With Starship reportedly set to begin low-liftoff tests that will mate it to the SpaceX Raptor engine soon, hopefully it won’t be too much longer before the capsule’s ready for a real shot beyond our atmosphere. In the meantime, we’ll be watching from the ground — with our Boring Company fire extinguishers at the ready.