SpaceX Manufactured Heat Shield Material Passes High Temperature Tests Simulating Reentry Heating Conditions of Dragon Spacecraft


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Company becomes only the second commercial source for the record holding NASA-developed material

Hawthorne, CA (February 20, 2009) - Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) announces the passing of a significant technical milestone in the development of its Dragon spacecraft with the successful arc jet testing of PICA-X high performance heat shield material.

Subjected to temperatures as high as 1850 degrees Celsius (3360 degrees Fahrenheit), the tests simulated the reentry heating conditions that will be experienced by the Dragon capsule. Panels of the high performance carbon-based material will protect cargo and crew during the spacecraft's return from Earth orbit.

SpaceX developed the ability to manufacture PICA-X with the assistance of NASA, the originator of PICA (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator). The "X" stands for the SpaceX-developed variants of the rigid, lightweight material, which has several improved properties and greater ease of manufacture.

"We tested three different variants developed by SpaceX," said Tom Mueller, VP of Propulsion, SpaceX. "Compared to the PICA heat shield flown successfully on NASA's Stardust sample return capsule, our SpaceX versions equaled or improved the performance of the heritage material in all cases."

The tests were conducted at the Arc Jet Complex at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, which has a rich history in the development of Thermal Protective Systems for NASA spacecraft, including Apollo, Space Shuttle, and robotic missions to Venus, Mars, and Saturn. The NASA Ames Arc Jet Complex is uniquely capable of simulating conditions experienced during reentry.

"The arc jet tests represent the culmination of an aggressive six-month development effort, and our goals have been met or exceeded," said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. "Dragon will be the first craft to return from Low Earth Orbit using a PICA-based thermal protection system."

SpaceX is only the second commercial producer of a PICA-based material. All of SpaceX's initial production will be used for domestic in-house applications including the heat shields of the Dragon spacecraft, and the Falcon 9 second stage, which is designed to return from orbit for recovery and reuse.

The inaugural Dragon spacecraft flight is scheduled for 2009 aboard SpaceX's new Falcon 9 launcher.

The Dragon capsule will enter the Earth's atmosphere at around 7 kilometers per second (15,660 miles per hour), heating the exterior of the shield to up to 1850 degrees Celsius. However, just a few inches of the PICA-X material will keep the interior of the capsule at room temperature.

In January 2006, NASA's Stardust sample return capsule, equipped with a PICA heat shield, set the record for the fastest reentry speed of a spacecraft into Earth's atmosphere - experiencing 12.9 kilometers per second (28,900 miles per hour). SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will return at just over half of that speed, and will experience only one tenth as much heating.

About SpaceX

SpaceX is revolutionizing access to space by developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles, powered by internally-developed Merlin engines, SpaceX offers light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous to planetary missions. On September 28, 2008, Falcon 1, designed and manufactured from the ground up by SpaceX, became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth, demonstrating that through simplicity, both reliability and low cost can be achieved in commercial spaceflight.

As a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), SpaceX will conduct three flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, culminating in Dragon berthing with the ISS. SpaceX is the only COTS contender that has the capability to return cargo and crew to Earth. NASA also has an option to demonstrate crew services to the ISS using the Falcon 9 / Dragon system.

In addition, NASA recently selected the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the International Space Station (ISS) Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract award. The contract includes 12 flights between 2010 and 2015 and represents a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the International Space Station.

Founded in 2002, the SpaceX team now numbers more than 620 full time employees, primarily located in Hawthorne, California, with additional locations in Texas, at SpaceX's Test Facility in McGregor near Waco; offices in Washington DC; and launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific.

# # #   Photo Link: http://www.spacex.com/assets/img/022209_PICAX_photo.png   Photo Caption: A sample of PICA-X heat shield material subjected to temperatures of up to 1850 degrees Celsius (3360 degrees Fahrenheit), at the Arc Jet Complex at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. The NASA-originated PICA material holds the record for high-speed reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The SpaceX-developed and manufactured PICA-X variants meet or exceed the performance of the original material, and will protect the Dragon spacecraft on its return to Earth. The first flight is scheduled for 2009.  

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