Suppose you have a regular steel drum with an ablative heat shield on the bottom. Theoretically, could this steel drum with heat shield perform a reentry from low earth orbit?

  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble A properly rated heat shield, yes. By steel drum I refer to iso.org/standard/33303.html . $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Jun 21, 2021 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ Perform reentry? Surely yes. Survive it in any particular way? No was to tell without also knowing the total mass and distribution thereof, internal pressure, temperature and acceleration limits for what's inside etc. $\endgroup$
    – TooTea
    Jun 21, 2021 at 7:11
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    $\begingroup$ Not trying to be difficult but if drum is empty or full makes a huge difference here - full of say lead it would need a substantial heat shield area to avoid becoming a kinetic weapon. Empty as long as you didn't care about paint burning off quite possible it would survive re-entry (if somewhat lighter) due to high cross section and low density. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2021 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ Q: What's the difference between a "heat shield for a steel drum," and a "reentry vehicle that contains a steel drum?" Where do you draw that line? If the question is, "is it possible to design some means to de-orbit a steel drum, and keep it intact?" Then the answer almost certainly is "yes." $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2021 at 20:32

1 Answer 1


The steel drum may be enclosed in a spherical heatshield covering all sides of the drum. If the ablative heatshield is thick enough, the drum will survive the reentry without damage by heat.

If you want to use a heatshield covering the bottom of the drum only, a stable orientation during reentry is necessary to survive reentry. So the drum would enter with heatshield first.

To protect not only the bottom of the drum but also the top, a conical heatshield is needed. The diameter and height of the cone should be big enough to shield also the top of the drum. The flow of very hot gas over the surface of the heatshield should not touch the top of the drum.


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