Space exploration involves exposure to incredibly harsh conditions, and missions involving re-entry face the biggest challenges of all. Whenever spacecraft and payloads must re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, special solutions must be in place to ensure it can withstand the high temperatures and speed it will be exposed to. Heat shields provide this protection, and play a multifaceted role during re-entry. 

In this article, we’ll answer the question, “What does a heat shield do?” and take a closer look at the design components that make heat shields able to withstand space environments. 

What Does a Heat Shield Do? 

A heat shield’s role is to protect the spacecraft during the re-entry phase of a mission. Heat shields act as insulators – redirecting, reflecting, or absorbing the extreme heat generated as the spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. They also help the spacecraft slow down to below supersonic velocities. This is the first and most crucial phase of landing a vehicle safely, either to protect human passengers or to ensure a passengerless vehicle can later be reused.  

Understanding the Environmental Conditions of Re-Entry

During the re-entry phase of a mission, the spacecraft is exposed to high levels of radiation, drastic temperature variations, and friction from atmospheric particles. During this time, the spacecraft will exceed speeds of over 7 kilometers per second and experience external surface temperatures of over 1,600 °C. Reliable shielding mechanisms are needed to ensure these conditions do not destroy the spacecraft and its payload. 

The Function of Heat Shields in Space

Heat shields can be thought of as the first line of defense for a spacecraft during re-entry. During descent, an immense amount of kinetic energy is generated. Heat shields help safely dissipate this, preventing extreme overheating that would result in structural damage. There are multiple types of heat shields currently used in space missions, as well as experimental technology still in development. 

Thermal protection systems, radiative cooling, and ablative shields are three different methods of efficiently managing thermal loads:

  • Thermal protection systems (TPS). Using a variety of insulating materials, such as ceramics or carbon composites, these systems provide a protective barrier against high temperatures. 
  • Radiative cooling. Radiative cooling is a passive cooling method that dissipates heat to ensure optimal internal temperatures.
  • Ablative heat shields. This type of heat shield features a layer of plastic resin that burns off during re-entry, creating a gaseous reaction that lifts heat away from the shield’s outer wall. 

Key Components and Design Configurations

Heat shield design involves careful consideration of aerodynamics, spacecraft structure, and mission-specific requirements. To begin, the heat shield must be designed in an aerodynamic shape that will minimize drag and compression during descent. 

When an object enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it experiences friction, or drag, that creates extreme mechanical stress. The heat shield should feature a structure that mitigates these effects. Material durability and shield structural integrity are other important considerations. Heat shields must be made from high-performance yet lightweight materials that minimize the spacecraft’s overall mass while being able to withstand the rigors of space travel. 

Challenges and Innovations in Heat Shield Technology 

While many advancements have been made in heat shield technology, there are still many challenges that persist. Developing solutions that meet weight restrictions while providing reliable thermal protection is an ongoing issue. However, research has been driving innovation in this field, and there are many promising new technologies. 

Advancements in materials science are creating new, more lightweight, and durable composites that can enhance heat shield performance. At the same time, additive manufacturing allows for the creation of more complex geometries and highly customized heat shield designs. At Tex Tech, we develop advanced thermal protection systems using innovative textile products.

Heat Shield Solutions From Tex Tech

Space heat shields are essential for protecting astronauts and spacecraft during the re-entry phase of space exploration missions. As one of the most thoroughly researched areas of the aerospace industry, there are many options available to create a reliable thermal protection system, and new innovations are being made every day.

At Tex Tech, we’re committed to delivering the most advanced heat shield solutions, backed by over a century of experience. To learn more about our products for the aerospace industry, contact us or request a quote today.