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SpaceX tests Starship ceramic heat shield tiles on the flight-proven CRS-18 Cargo Dragon

SpaceX announced during its CRS-18 Cargo Dragon webcast that the double-flown spaceship will feature a handful of Starship ceramic heat tiles designed to test a critical component of the next-generation SpaceX spacecraft in flight.

The extremely adverse weather forced SpaceX to scrub today's planned CRS-18 launch by T-30s, and tomorrow's backup window (July 25) does not look any better. Nevertheless, the flight-proven Cargo Dragon capsule (C108) will carry a small piece of its predecessor, if the weather in Central Florida plays along. This is a particularly appropriate flight test as the capsule will also be the first commercial spacecraft to launch three orbits into orbit.

While Cargo Dragon's reusability milestone is undoubtedly impressive, Starship must make the spacecraft's third voyage into orbit a breeze to realize SpaceX's dream of radically cutting space costs. To do this, Starship and Super Heavy must be the most easily reusable spaceships and boosters ever built and flown, as ultimately only careful inspections between suborbital booster launches and orbital starship launches are required, and reentry.

To achieve this incredible performance, SpaceX must design, test, and mass-produce thermal protection systems (including heat shields) that are more effective than anything previously flown in space. This is where Cargo Dragon (Dragon 1

) and Crew Dragon come into play.

The Cargo Dragon C113 bares its burnt-out heat shield after returning to port on June 4 after its successful CRS-17 mission. (Pauline Acalin)
The crew of Dragon C201 shows its heat shield after the first reentry of the spaceship into orbit on 8 March. (NASA / Cory Huston)

Although this Starship heat shield test is surprising, it is just a logical extrapolation from SpaceX's tendency to use hardware for flight testing in retrospect. SpaceX's routine and regular Cargo Dragon launches provide the company with an invaluable platform to test new technologies in both orbit and reentry conditions. In fact, SpaceX is the only company – government or commerce – with a reusable spacecraft capable of bringing significant quantities of cargo from space to the earth's surface.

When the Cargo Dragon C108 continues its successful record of orbital missions and recoveries, SpaceX can fully restore Starship's ceramic heat shield tiles, providing access to hardware tested in orbit and reentry that should provide invaluable data spaceship. It is unclear exactly where a ceramic heat shield would be used on Starship or if this means that the spacecraft's transpiration cooled steel tiles did not pass, but CEO Elon Musk will hopefully announce further details in a presentation later this month or early next month ,

] Remarkably, the Starship heat shield test tiles appear to be installed near the leading edge and thus the most stressed portion of the heat shield. Ultimately, it is very impressive that NASA has accepted this significant change and, in addition to SpaceX, has come to the conclusion that the additional risk for the prototype tiles is close to zero.

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