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What are the pros and cons of using shielding as opposed to liquid cooling the skin of supersonic aircraft? This is in light of the fact that most shielding materials used in aircraft, like ceramics, are very heavy. Could a radiator with 100 liters of water possibly weigh less?

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  • $\begingroup$ Shielding is cooling, but air cooling. Where there is plenty of air flow, it's hard to beat air cooling. Liquid cooling only has the advantage when there's little air flow, like around the engine it's common to use fuel as cooling medium. $\endgroup$ – user3528438 Nov 21 '17 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with a radiator is that you need someplace to dump the heat. With a car, you can put a radiator out front in the cool(er) air flow, but it still causes drag. At supersonic speeds, that radiator would be heated even more than the skin of the plane, not to mention that the drag would make it highly inefficient at best. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 21 '17 at 19:06
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I’m not aware of any supersonic aircraft which use ‘shielding’ to protect them from atmospheric friction heating, save for rockets, and a few experimental platforms like the X-15B which used an ablative coating, mostly of cork or rubber, which slowly burnt off during the flight, protecting the aircraft structure underneath.

As for cooling systems, I suspect that the weight of a network of tubes throughout the skin of the aircraft coupled with a heat exchanger and pump to circulate cooling fluid through them was too expensive and complex. A more efficient method is simply to use the aircraft’s fuel as a heat sink and absorb atmospheric friction heat be slowly warming the fuel in the tanks. It’s a lighter and simpler solution.

Ceramic protective layers, such as the tiles on the exterior of the space shuttle orbiter can be made fairly light when they are a matrix of nitrogen gas pockets inside of them. They are quite effective a heat protection on a unit mass basis but can be difficult and expensive to maintain.

Since the 1970s there have been few aircraft programs venturing past Mach 2 so practical applications of heat protection for airframes has been limited. We will have to see what new developments in military hypersonic vehicles, such as Lockheed’s SR-72 reconnaissance aircraft, are using to address atmospheric heating.

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Shielding isn't used on aircraft. Only on spacecraft like the Space Shuttle do you get surface elements whose only function is a heat shield.

The problem with a radiator is that the whole aircraft is being heated, so your radiator has only a slight temperature gradient to work with. That means it needs to be very large (i.e. heavy).

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