MadSci Network: Engineering

Re: Why are most of the space shuttle tiles white in color?

Date: Wed Mar 7 01:11:02 2001
Posted By: Bradley Kelley, Grad student, Mechanical Engineering, Colorado State University
Area of science: Engineering
ID: 983066934.Eg

Dear Cheri,

This wasn't an easy question to find information on.  I had a hunch about the 
reasons for the black and white tiles, and I found a NASA website 
that verified my hunch.  However, I don't know any ceramics engineers 
that may better explain the tiles, so I will try to do my best.

Most people know that black colors will absorb more radiative heat than 
white will.  Everyone knows you wear white clothing on a hot, sunny day to 
keep cooler.  This is because black will absorb more of the light and heat 
from the sun than white will (White will reflect more of the light and 
heat).  What most people don't know is that the exact opposite is also 
true, that black will emit more heat that white will!  Let me give an 

Take two baseballs, one is its normal white and another is dyed all black. 
 If they are both heated to the same temperature and you held your hand 
close to one and then the other, the black one would feel warmer.  A 
temperature gauge would verify the same thing.  Although they are the same 
temperature, there is more radiative heat from the black baseball.  (Now 
this is only true for holding your hand close, not touching.  That is a 
hole different ball game!  If hot enough, both can burn you with equal 
efficiency).  This is because the black color of the baseball is able to 
emit more heat than the white, just like it can absorb more heat than the 

So, what do hot black and white baseballs have to do with shuttle tiles?  
Out in space there is no protective atmosphere to protect you from the sun, 
and while it is very cold in space, if you are hit by all of the rays from 
the sun, they can warm you up in a hurry!  Therefore, tiles that aren't 
critical for re-entry are white to help reflect the radiative energy from 
the sun, making the temperature control for the inside of the shuttle a 
little easier.  So that explains the white tiles, they are there to help 
keep the shuttle cool.  (That must sound strange since it is -200 C and 
colder in space!)  But it is true.  Think how the sun can warm you up on a 
cold winter day!

So then what about the black tiles!  Well, their purpose is much different 
than the others, and very important.  They prevent the shuttle from burning 
up during re-entry into the atmosphere.  One of the ways they are able to 
do this is by dissipating heat rapidly.  By getting rid of the heat as it 
builds up, you collect less of a total heat build up.  These tiles get rid 
of heat so fast, that you can pick up a tile with your bare hand seconds 
after it being removed from the oven, even with the center still glowing red 
hot!  Part of this heat dissipation comes from the radiative emittance from 
the black colored tile.

So there you have it, part of the reason for the different color tiles.  
(There may be more that I don't know about!).  All of this information was 
gleaned from the following NASA website.  The content is a little 
jargon laden so I hope that my explanation helps.  However, there is a ton 
of information here about the Thermal Protection System for the shuttle:
Best of luck.

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