Not Too Hot to Handle - The Special Experiment That’s More Than Just a Cool Photo Op




It’s that time of year again- cozy season. We turn to our shearling lined boots, Denali fleeces and thick stadium blankets as we warm up around a fire.

But, could you imagine sticking your hand in that fire, and not getting burned? Absolutely not!

What about holding a material where its core can reach upwards of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit? What if we told you, in that instance, you can!

A colleague of this writer passed along pictures of team members holding boxes that seemed to glow pink. Did they hold a super power, or was something scientific behind this photo op? I reached out to a few team members to find out.

Thermal Protection System TestingChris and Ryan clued me in. First- the boxes are machined out of the same material used for our thermal protection system (TPS) tiles that cover our Dream Chaser® spaceplane. This material is such a good insulator when heated in the oven, the center can reach upwards of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit but the corners are cool to touch! Dream Chaser relies on this material to keep the structure cool during the extreme heat of atmospheric reentry.

Back to the photo op- the Dream Chaser team needed the cubes for strength testing to confirm our TPS materials could withstand the heat generated during reentry. In order to reach that heat, they had to head to our engine test site outside of Madison, Wisconsin. While at the facility, the team tested the material in the rocket engine plume, heating it 3,700 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m told it’s similar to someone using a welding torch… but picture a very, very big welding torch.

This was a first of its kind experiment and it was a success! The standard method of testing this material is in an Arc jet at a specialized facility, but because of the positive outcome, this is a new way the Dream Chaser team can test and validate the performance of future TPS materials.

Thermal Protection System TestingThermal Protection System Testing Thermal Protection System Testing

So, a positive test outcome, cross country collaboration and cool pictures! What more can an engineer building a state-of-the-art spaceplane ask for?